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Syria may be coming apart at the seams, but a few yards from its southwestern border you would be hard-pressed to believe it.
One political opponent is Rabeea Jaber, a sweet-faced 24-year-old, actually from the neighboring town of Buqata, who pretty much lives in Majdal Shams mainly because it “has life in it.”
He is an atheist and a social activist, as are many young people in Majdal Shams. He helped build a children’s library and named it after the Syrian writer Hanna Mina. He has a degree in accounting and economics from Tel Aviv University, which he attended on a full scholarship granted for excellence to students from peripheral towns. After graduating, he worked at Deloitte for a year and loved Tel Aviv, but found it was “hard to integrate if you’re from the Golan.”
He hopes to move to Toronto with his girlfriend to study for an MBA.
“It’s better to be Canadian than Israeli,” he said. In 1981, when Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights and offered all its residents citizenship, Jaber’s grandfather and father refused. He follows this tradition, though is less characterized by what he says defines a Druze. “A Druze is always here. It doesn’t matter who comes in, we’re here, living on this land.”
He is equally “against Assad and against Israel” and is hoping for the emergence of a “strong, democratic, modern Syria.” No, he doesn’t want to live there. He’s heard it is not that hard to get Canadian citizenship.
By Jaber’s estimation, not more than 20 percent of Majdal Shams residents share his political inclinations.
One who certainly does is Salman Fakradin, a researcher at Al-Marsad, the Arab Center for Human Rights in the Golan Heights. A charmer in a French beret and a red scarf, Fakradin opens an 11 a.m. interview with shots of Johnnie Walker Black Label served from a crystal decanter. On a large screen TV in his living room, an official Syrian channel downplays recent events inside the country.
He spends most of his energies protesting against “Israel’s war crimes.”
“War crimes means taking over land, destroying existing infrastructure and the geographic area,” he said. “This is an occupation regime.”
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Born in Majdal Shams in 1954, he was 14 during the Six Day War. He has been protesting against Israeli rule ever since, and has paid for it, he says, with 13 jail sentences. One term in jail was for spying for Syria, a charge he affirms.
“In 1973 I gave the Syrians updates about Israeli army concentrations on the Golan Heights on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. I am a proud Syrian. You have to oppose occupation because it is by definition the tyranny of one people over another.”
Despite this assertion, Fakhadin does not deny that the assignation of the Golan Heights to Syrian rule was another form of colonization, “decided over European dining tables.”
In 1920, French and British colonels determined the divisions of the region, with the exception of a tiny pearl-like pond, Marj el-Man, which was assigned as a drinking source equally to the cows of Syria and of Lebanon by a Bedouin arbitrator.
Fakradin does not identify as a Druze, rather as “an atheist and a human being. Take me out of this circle of definitions.”
Syria, he says, “is a tremendous mosaic of peoples and cultures, a modern civil state” he is eager to rejoin. Though “Syria today is not a country. It is a gang made up of friends and brothers and in-laws of Bashar Assad.”
“They decide how to run the country over breakfast.” Were he in Syria, he says, he’d be protesting too.
One resident of Majdal Shams, who didn't want to give his name because his family still lives in Syria, who is also Fakradin’s age, was among those who organized a six-month strike in 1981 against the Israeli authorities for trying to force Israeli citizenship on the Druze. He has a very different take.
“We were so foolish,” he said, ruefully. “We were so harsh. We should have just asked them not to impose citizenship, and left it at that — a choice.”
“If I didn’t have a brother and sister in Syria, I'd be saying everything I’m saying to you even on TV. What a mistake we made with the strike! Look, the Israelis got this land in a war. They didn’t just march in. There was a war, and they won. This has happened throughout history.”
These days, he believes the Druze have a crucial role to play.
“The Druze are the only population that has deep contacts in both Israeli and in Syrian society," he said. "We should be the peacemakers.”