The Occupied Majdal Shams

On the map of Syria, but within its occupied territory (The Golan Heights), there exists a stunning, sunny village named Majdal Shams, situated at the southern foothills of Mount Hermon (in Arabic, Jabal Al-Sheikh). Majdal Shams, translated from Arabic as “the tower of the sun,” is a village inhabited by approximately 9,000 people who are as rooted to their land as anyone is to his/her country, but most poignantly, they are people who exist with an “undefined” nationality.

Back in 1997, while living in the United States, I came to know a couple from Majdal Shams, and today, they have become two of my closest friends. During our first encounter, I can vividly recall how unfathomable it was to listen to them explaining that, instead of a passport, they are only officially permitted to carry a travel document with the word “Undefined” printed as their nationality.

You see, Majdal Shams was captured by Israel in 1967 and has been under its military occupation ever since. It is one of the few villages still inhabited in the Golan Heights and whose people insisted on remaining in the midst of their apple and cherry orchards. Prior to the occupation, the Golan Heights consisted of 131 villages. Today only five of these villages remain inhabited, namely: Majdal Shams, Baq’atha, Ein Qenya, Mas’adeh, and Alghajar. Also prior to Israeli occupation, the Golan Heights had a population of over 153,000 people, but within 6 days after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the numbers shrunk to approximately 39,000, including about 19,000 Syrian Druze, 16,500 Jewish Settlers, and 2,100 Syrian Muslims. The Golan Heights is an area determined by the United Nations and the international community to be part of Syrian land, occupied by Israel.

Through story and example, I have come to learn of the silenced human suffering that takes place in this forgotten area of our world’s map, a land simply dispossessed of a nationality. And I am writing to deliver to my readers a glimpse of the daily agony lived by the peoples in this occupied land.

Majdal Shams, as per the Golan Heights annexation Law of 1981, and against U.N. consent, was considered by Israel as part of their territory, and, in turn, was subjugated to civilian Israeli law, administration, and jurisdiction. The majority of its residents are made up of Druze, a religious minority dispersed over a few villages in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Syrian Druze have refused to accept the Israeli citizenship which is available to them upon choice. As explained by my friend, in agreeing to Israeli citizenship, one has to also accept the illogical fact that his children would have to serve as part of the Israeli army in the likely case of a military draft, and consequently, would have to fight against their own homeland of Syria—an irrational mandate by any standards.

Moreover, it is paradoxical to hear residents of Majdal Shams introduce themselves as Syrians living in the occupied territory, albeit they are not permitted to visit Syria, the country of their original nationality. It is quite ironic that even though Damascus, the capital of Syria, lies only 60 KM (less than 40 miles) away from Majdal Shams, it has been and still remains a forbidden destination for the vast majority of Syrians living in the Golan Heights. Israeli law deems that if anyone leaves the occupied territory into Syrian borders, they are automatically forfeiting their right of return to their homes and land in the Golan Heights, with the exception of university students seeking free education in Syria and Druze clerics attending religious ceremonies (both of whom have to first be given approval for departure and re-entry by the Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs).

As depicted in the internationally acclaimed and award-winning film The Syrian Bride which happens to be filmed in Majdal Shams, when a bride or groom from the Golan Heights is to wed a Syrian, they immediately lose their right of return to their country of birth. Consequently, a wedding celebration is then transformed into a grieving ceremony as parents have to surrender their daughter or son to a land on which they can never tread. One means of reuniting family members is by travel to the neighbouring Jordan, an expensive trip unaffordable for many. Another means is to line up with bullhorns and binoculars across from one another on opposite sides of the Israeli / Syrian border separated by rows of steel wires, at a valley named the Shouting Hill, and to shout to one another! Here I would like for my readers to take a moment and reflect upon the fact that a grandparent’s only opportunity to see his or her grandchildren is through binoculars capturing an image from kilometres away.

My friends recount a tragic story which took place on March 7, 2008, where a 24-year-old woman, May Atef Sha’lan, married to a Syrian from Ein Qenya (a village in the occupied Golan Heights), became ill and was denied the basic right to see her mother while on her death bed, after Israeli authority declined the pleas of May’s mother to be granted a travel permit to simply be with her dying daughter in Syria. It is told that May was moaning on her death bed, “I want to see my mother. I am from Ein Qenya… Take me to see my mother…” But May’s appeals were never granted, and she died in agony, without her mother and beloved family, in the midst of helpless, silent tears in Syria.

Another repulsive example of the filthy laws in the Golan Heights is the uprooting of their trees at night from orchards and farms with the pretext that these lands represent Israeli territory. One of such many incidents took place last month, on April 23, 2009, for the second time in a farm in Baq’atha. The owner of the farm determinedly awaited, for many consecutive days, the arrival of Israeli forces whose only purpose was to denude and strip trees from their land so that they can become potential Jewish settlements. As they finally arrived, the owner called for help from his family and friends, and the forces were defeated by the people of Baq’atha and handed over peacefully to Israeli police in order avoid any future potential blame.

The stories go on and on, and the task of choosing one story over another is a most difficult one, as each story speaks of yet another poignant case of human suffering. Yet one story that I cannot but mention in this article is of the personal experience of my friends who immigrated from Majdal Shams to the United States in 1997. After residing in the U.S. for seven years, they sought to renew their travel documents at an Israeli Embassy in the U.S.; however, they were informed at the time of application that after a period of seven years of immigration, they would have to return to live in their homes in Majdal Shams to “renew” their residence and consequently become eligible for renewed travel documents, or else they lose their right to return and would be prohibited from visiting their village again. In order not to jeopardize their ties to their own homeland, my friends took on the burden of a year’s trip to Majdal Shams, and uprooted their children from the schools they attended in the U.S. at the time. Yet, the irony lies in the fact that any Jew, from any country in the world, has the right to live in Israel and claim immediate, automatic citizenship upon their arrival to Israel, regardless of place of birth, nationality, or foreign residence. Moreover, they are offered free housing and free land, possibly the homes and orchards of my friends.

I will end by posing the following questions: How is it possible that such violations to human rights are taking place, tolerated and, furthermore, legitimized under a country that claims itself democratic?

Ghada Al Atrash Janbey is a mother and weekly columnist in The Daily Townsman Newspaper, Cranbrook, BC, Canada. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Ghada, or visit Ghada's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. sijepuis said on May 10th, 2009 at 8:06am #

    This is very sad. Bah. But thank you for the informative article, Ms Janbey.

    Meanwhile, the Israeli government declared as recently as last week [for anyone who might still be wondering], that Israel as no intention of leaving the Golan Heights, ever.

    This stubborn refusal may have to do, in part, with the fact that Israel receives between 20-30% of its water fom Golan. To be deprived of that precious resource would place limitations on Israel’s ability to settle new Jewish immigrants.

    Access to adequate water supplies will always remain a source of concern for Israel, but it is truly repugnant that neighboring countries are made to pay a permanent, high price for Israel’s insecurity.

  2. lichen said on May 10th, 2009 at 11:59am #

    It is so gross that israel recognizes a “right to return” when it comes to white europeans colonizing someplace they’ve never been before, but if poor indigenous people go out for a walk, they consider this forfeiting their right to their home, and promptly demolish and/or occupy it. It especially pains me to hear not only of the water stolen, but the fruit trees, yet again.

  3. moazzam sheikh said on May 10th, 2009 at 3:52pm #

    If seen through the lens of colonialism, it all makes sense.

  4. arnon said on May 13th, 2009 at 9:53am #

    you are wrong and you are misleading.
    the syrian druze are not “forced” to carry these travel documents – they are permitted to. a few of them received israeli citzenship, and all are eligible for israeli citizenship – but they reject it.

    the story of May Atef Sha’lan is also wrong. she is a compulsive liar, and the reason she is denied crossing is because she has attempted to do this illegally quite a few times, and she has been denied this right due to that fact.

    every year hundreds of druze students living in the occupied golan travel to syria to participate in syrian studies. hundreds of druze sheiks also travel to syria – all via quneitra crossing.
    all are allowed to travel and return to the golan.

    “One of such many incidents took place last month, on April 23, 2009, for the second time in a farm in Baq’atha. The owner of the farm determinedly awaited, for many consecutive days, the arrival of Israeli forces whose only purpose was to denude and strip trees from their land so that they can become potential Jewish settlements.”
    i know this event personally, and believe me – that’s not the issue.
    the farm owner has enlarged his growing area into a LANDMINED AREA.
    the reason his trees were removed was because they were IN THE LANDMINED AREA.
    no jewish settlements will be built on landmines, let me assure you of that.

    just with these three issues, i can dismiss your whole article as misleading and false.

  5. Fred said on May 20th, 2009 at 1:08pm #

    Thank you, Arnon. I was going to say something, but you said it better.

  6. Yossi Sareed said on May 20th, 2009 at 10:13pm #

    Thanks to Arnon for explaining and to Fred for supporting the just reasons behind the removal of the trees. you should say it very loud and prod: Israel has special forces who can remove MINES from LANDMINES (the capitals come from Arnon’s post) who come at the dark of the night to do their job, risking their own lives and stepping on MINES in the LANDMIN and by accedent remove trees. They also Assure everybody that no jewish settlements will be built on LANDMINES, Settelemnts are only built after LANDMINED are cleared by the special forsec who work only at night.

  7. Michael said on May 24th, 2009 at 10:20am #

    Yes, good for you, Arnon. This sort of propaganda can go far in the West, especially among young people who do not know history or do not know how to ask the right questions. There are many reasons why Israel was forced to capture and then keep the Golan, first among them being to prevent the Syrians from shelling innocent people in the Galilee. Second would be to indeed protect a large part of Israel’s water supply, which Syria tried to divert in the 1960s.

    Let’s continue to resist these lies and tell the truth about Israel and Israelis.

  8. Yossi said on May 25th, 2009 at 6:52pm #

    On the nonsense myth that Michael in the comment above refers to, I ask the readers to see what Uri Misgav an Israeli historian says few days ago in Yediot Ahronot.
    Here is the translation if you do not read Hebrew:
    “This is the Myth:
    Our farmers went to work their fields and Syrian soldiers fired on them for no reason, our sons wanted to play in peace but the Syrian shells kept them in underground shelters.
    And here is the fact:
    Israel was not on the receiving side of provocation, on the contrary, Israel was the side who initiated those provocations.
    IDF (The Israeli Occupation Army) sent Israeli settlers to plow Syrian fields (east of Israeli-Syrian border) knowing that Syrians will open fire on them and thus provide a pretext to IDF for an intense retaliation. It is worth learning this material because (Mr. Barak) Obama just started to delve in the Palestinian issue, Soon he will also be interested in the Golan.”