MAJDAL SHAMS, Israeli-Occupied Golan Heights: Up one of the hillside streets that winds through Majdal Shams is a run-down tailor shop hidden among the limestone apartment buildings.
There are no signs of Israeli tourists on this street, in a quiet residential corner of town just steps from a fenced-off border zone separating Israeli-occupied territory from a ceasefire line demarcating areas controlled by the Syrian government.
Yet the signage on this tiny shop is entirely in Hebrew, like many of the storefronts, road signs and even restaurant menus around town. Residents say it’s one of the first things foreign visitors notice when they arrive here.
In Majdal Shams, the cars bear yellow and blue Israeli license plates, while the flag flying above a local medical clinic is Israeli—even a small minority of the residents themselves are nominally Israeli, despite the overwhelming majority having rejected the offer of citizenship. Instead, they have Israeli-issued identity cards that list their status, in Hebrew, as “undefined.”
“We are Syrians—it’s not a feeling, it’s the truth,” says one local activist, speaking to Syria Direct in a cafe overlooking the town’s soccer field last week.
Residents speak in a lilting Arabic dialect that sounds nearly Lebanese, and it was commonplace for them to attend university in Damascus in the decades before Syria’s current war.
When Israeli forces seized control over the Syrian Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states, tens of thousands of residents fled deeper into Syria—often towards Damascus or Daraa.
But an estimated 25,000 people stayed behind, remaining—in the eyes of international law—in what is still widely considered to be occupied Syrian territory.
Nevertheless, Israel has long laid claim to the Golan, an area rich in farmland and natural resources that overlooks parts of the southern Syrian hinterland, building one settlement after another to cement its hold over the strategic plateau.
While generations of Syrians have been born into legal limbo under Israeli authority, a local human rights group now estimates that Israeli settlers make up nearly half the population of the Golan.
And despite international outcry over the occupation of the area, the Israeli government attempted to effectively annex the Golan in 1981 with a law that purportedly brought the region under its jurisdiction. The law was never recognized internationally.
But a decades-old status quo seemed to suddenly change late last month when US President Donald Trump issued a single tweet:
After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2019
Then last week, the US president signed a proclamation—alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—declaring US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territory. The two leaders were seen on television smiling and holding up the signed document after a scheduled meeting at the White House.
To date, the US is the only foreign country to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
The decision was met with a flurry of condemnation. The Syrian government responded by calling the Golan an “indivisible” part of Syria, while Syria’s UN representative Hussam el-Din Ala condemned the move as reflective of “malicious attempts [by Israel] to exploit the situation and latest developments in Syria...to consolidate the occupation of the Golan.”
And at the Arab League summit in Tunis on March 31, the region’s leaders “affirmed that the Golan is occupied Syrian territory” in an official statement.
But in Majdal Shams, Trump’s announcement “was not a surprise,” says Wael Tarabieh, a local Syrian artist.
Tarabieh works as an activist with Al-Marsad, a human rights organization based in the town. The group, which takes its name from the Arabic word for “observatory,” works to document violations against Golani Syrians under Israeli occupation.
In a map handout published by Al-Marsad, the group lists hundreds of Syrian farms and villages in the Golan that have been razed by Israeli forces since 1967. Their names have long since vanished from most maps, as well as the road signs along the area’s highways.
Only five original villages still remain, including Majdal Shams.
Trump announcement ‘won’t change anything’
“Not only is [Trump’s recognition] not new, but we have already been living the impacts [of Israeli occupation] even before this proclamation,” Tarabieh says.
Trump’s declaration last week comes little more than a year after the right-wing leader recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and announced that the US would move its Israel embassy there from Tel Aviv. The move sparked international outcry, and was opposed by most world leaders.
A Syrian farmer outside Majdal Shams on March 28. Photo by Madeline Edwards.
Nevertheless, five months later, the US opened its Jerusalem embassy just one day before Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate their mass displacement during the violent founding of Israel in 1948.
Now, as Israel prepares for legislative elections in early April, Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is seen by many as a boon for current prime minister Netanyahu and his right-leaning Likud Party to remain in power.
But inside Majdal Shams, residents tell Syria Direct they expect few real impacts on their daily lives as a result of Trump’s announcement.
Among them is Weam Amasha, a former detainee in Israeli custody who was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas. The 38-year-old now works at an NGO in Majdal Shams that puts on Arabic-language theater productions from its small office space in the town.
Amasha has long been opposed to Israel’s occupation of the Golan. He was arrested for “security reasons” by Israeli police as a teenager, he says, before serving 14 years of a more than 20-year prison sentence.
But Amasha, newly a father, says his opposition today does not come from his experience as a former prisoner, but “because I recognize myself as a Syrian who refuses the Israeli occupation on my land.”
Still, he says, Trump’s announcement last week “won’t change anything” after decades of what has been an effective annexation of the Golan by the Israeli government.
“From when I was young, we’ve always known that America is the main supporter of Israel.”
Just 15 or so minutes down the road from Amasha’s office, Israeli cyclists are taking advantage of the cool weather. Hikers with walking sticks and backpacks trek through the mountains. Early that morning before sunrise, some one hundred or so trail runners descended a hill just outside Majdal Shams, wearing raincoats and headlamps that cut through the darkness.
Israeli settlements and kibbutz communes dot the nearby highway, their automated gates tended by security guards.
It is below these hills, in the low-lying farmland along the border fence outside Majdal Shams, that residents point to one more tangible, everyday impact of the occupation.
Emil Masoud drives up a steep hillside just west of the fence line that demarcates where the occupied Golan ends and the ceasefire line begins. Below him, dozens of apple and cherry orchards sit fenced off from one another. A smattering of farmers dressed in the white caps and loose trousers worn by some Druze men clip away at the branches of trees.
Two or three UN vehicles pass through the farms as Masoud reaches the top of the hill, and points out a spot nearby where a wind turbine is set to be built.
“All of this hill will be covered with turbines,” he says.
In his 40s, with salt-and-pepper hair, Masoud is one of dozens of farmers from the surrounding Syrian villages who worry that an Israeli company’s plan to construct a wind farm here could disrupt their livelihoods.
Some of the turbines were originally slated to be built next to a nearby Israeli settlement, according to Al-Marsad and local activists, until the residents of that settlement objected. The machines were then moved toward the Syrian-owned farmland below Majdal Shams.
The construction plan, proposed by Israeli clean energy company Energix, includes several dozen turbines that are to be as tall as 64-story buildings, according to a research pamphlet published earlier this year by Al-Marsad.
Farmers and activists meanwhile tell Syria Direct that the company encouraged local farm owners to sign contracts for the turbines to be built on their land, without telling residents of the negative health risks.
That was already several years ago. It’s unclear whether activists, including Masoud, can now cancel the wind farm project altogether.
“We met with the company three times and they just said the good things about the project and they didn’t accept our fears or our concerns,” says Masoud.
Two representatives from the company’s Majdal Shams operations declined to comment.
At Al-Marsad’s modest office in Majdal Shams, artist Tarabieh cites the wind farm project as just one of the everyday impacts of occupation—another way lives here are quietly hemmed in by “Israeli policies [and] exploitation” imposed on local communities “without taking into consideration the people.”
It’s something that residents have been living with since long before Trump’s declaration last week thrust the area back into the international spotlight.
With Israel’s occupation of the Golan now counted in decades, rather than years, lifelong residents of Majdal Shams—like Tarabieh—remain unsure of what will actually change on the ground in the wake of the White House proclamation.
“We’re already living these policies,” Tarabieh says. “What Trump’s [announcement] adds is to give the Israelis a kind of push, a kind of approval.”