September 24, 2009

Druze cross Syrian-Israeli border - that's change

In a surprising turn of events, given the current state of relations between Syria and Israel, over 500 Druze men and women from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights were permitted to cross the de facto border into Syria for a five-day visit. The Druze crossed the line of demarcation drawn in 1974 following negotiations after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

The point of crossing was the United Nations checkpoint in the city of al-Qunaytirah, the same checkpoint through which hundreds of Druze brides have passed over the years, never to return to their families in the Golan Heights.

Once the young women entered Syria, there was no return permitted. This practice was made famous in the movie "The Syrian Bride."

This recent crossing represents a major change in both Israel's and Syria's positions. For many Druze trapped on the Israeli side of the cease-fire line, this is the first chance they have had to visit family on the Syrian side since Israel seized the Golan Heights in the Six Day War of June 1967.

Many of the Druze will make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Habil (Abel), considered by the Druze to be one of their prophets. This is the only picture I was able to take of it, as it sits on the other side of a Syrian air defense radar site at Zabadani, about 30 miles from Damascus. The guards hold all cameras (well, almost all) at a checkpoint while you visit the shrine.

Recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad spurned American attempts to restart peace talks between Syria and Israel. Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that he had no intention of returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

Why the two sides were able to put aside the tense relations between them and arrange this crossing and visit is a mystery, but it certainly is a positive step. Who knows where it might lead?