The Disinherited: Syria’s 130,000 Golan Height refugees

30 July 2010 — Israeli Occupation Archive

What happened to the 130,000 Syrian citizens living in the Golan Heights in June 1967? According to the Israeli narrative, they all fled to Syria, but official documents and testimonies tell a different story.

Israeli eyewitness: “[W]e saw a big group of Syrian civilians, a few hundred people, gathered in front of tables with soldiers sitting behind them. We stopped and asked a soldier what they were doing. He answered they were doing pre-expulsion registration. I’m not a softhearted person, but I immediately had the feeling that something here wasn’t right. I still remember what a bad impression this sight left on me. But it was, de facto, like it was [with the Arab populations] in Lod, Ramle and other places in the War of Independence.”

IOA Editor: As in 1948, the “Israeli narrative” tries to sweep Israel’s ethnic cleansing crimes under the rug. As in 1948, official Israel lied about the fate of the local population during and after the war and so did Israeli historians, as this story reveals.

Note: As is often the case, the original Haaretz story, in Hebrew, is longer and more detailed than the English version presented below.

Among the parts left out of the English version: Rehavam Ze’evi, then a general at the IDF General Command under then IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, in a War Room meeting on 9 June 1967, stated

“The [Golan] Height does not have a large population and it needs to be received [delivered] clean of its residents.”

To which the Haaretz writer adds

“The IDF did not receive the Height empty, as Ze’evi wanted, but it took care that it will become that.”

Twenty years later, Ze’evi — by then an extreme right-wing politician — wrote in a Yediot Ahronot article defending his Transfer [of all Palestinians out of Palestine] idea:

Palmach member David Elazar [IDF General in charge of the Northern Command which lead the conquest of the Golan] removed all the Arab villagers from the Golan Height after the Six-Day-War, and he did so with the approval of Rabin the chief of staff, Dayan the defense minister and Eshkol the prime minister,”

all regarded as moderate Zionists, therefore justifying Ze’evi’s Transfer idea, which was considered “extreme” in most Israeli political circles.

Indeed, Ze’evi had a point:  Historically, while  right-wing Zionism (“Lehi,” or the “Stern-Gang” and the “Irgun” were associated with the war crimes of Deir Yassin, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine which followed was largely the responsibility of the “Yishuv,” the broad, mainstream Jewish community of Palestine, which was dominated by labor movement elements, not the right-wing.

This is still very  important today:  Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni — representing the current generation that came out of the school of David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin, all considered “moderate” — offer a political vision that is no different than that of Benjamin Netanyahu, who follows the the school of Ze’ev Zabotinsky and Menachem Begin, both considered “extreme”.

Also, both header and sub-header of the two versions are different. The header of the Hebrew version story reads “What happened to the 130 thousand Syrian citizens who resided in the Golan Heights in June 1967?” The header of the English version story reads: “The disinherited.”

The sub-header of the Hebrew version story reads “What happened to the 130,000 Syrian citizens who lived in the Golan Heights in June 1967? According to the official Israeli version, the vast majority fled into the depth of Syria by the end of the war. According to military documents and eyewitness reports, tens of thousands were expelled in a transfer that reminds that of the residents of Lod [Lydda] and Ramle [al-Ramla] in 1948.

The sub-header of the English version reads “What happened to the 130,000 Syrian citizens living in the Golan Heights in June 1967? According to the Israeli narrative, they all fled to Syria, but official documents and testimonies tell a different story.” Clearly, this “sanitized” version was designed to ‘soften the blow’ of the facts presented in the English version, which are essentially the same as those of the Hebrew version. Not the first time Haaretz editors engage in such practices.

RELATED Jonathan Cook: Israel should not keep its history behind lock and key


Golan Height refugees, 1967

Golan Height refugees, 1967 (Photo: Micha Bar-am)

By Shay Fogelman, Haaretz – 30 July 2010
www.haaretz.com/magazine/friday-supplement/the-disinherited-1.304959

What happened to the 130,000 Syrian citizens living in the Golan Heights in June 1967? According to the Israeli narrative, they all fled to Syria, but official documents and testimonies tell a different story.

The aroma of ripe figs fills your nostrils as soon as you enter the village of Ramataniya. At the height of summer, they’re overripe and the smell of fermentation is oppressive. With no one to pick it, the fruit rots on the trees. With no one to trim them, the roots and branches grow wild, cracking the black basalt walls of the nearby houses, reaching through empty window frames, and destroying stone walls in the yards.

Neglect and ruin are everywhere. The red tiles have vanished from the roofs. The floor tiles have been removed. Any belongings were confiscated or plundered decades ago. Bars still cover some windows, but the doors are gone. The occasional snake pokes out from beneath a heap of stones that were once part of a wall; birds peck at the rotting figs, and an enormous wild boar wanders skittishly down the path. Suddenly it stops and takes a look back, as if debating whether to stake a claim or run for its life. In the end, it flees.

Of the dozens of Syrian villages that were abandoned in the Golan Heights after the Six-Day War, Ramataniya is thought to be the best preserved. Apparently thanks to the brief period of Jewish settlement here in the late 19th century – and not because of its Byzantine history – it was declared an archaeological site right after the 1967 war and thereby saved from the bulldozers. But the fate of the rest of the Syrian localities in the Golan Heights was completely different: Apart from the four Druze villages at the foot of Mount Hermon, they were all destroyed, in most cases down to their very foundations.

However, the fires in recent weeks that wiped out the shrubs and weeds exposed their remains, which attest that more than 200 villages, towns and farms flourished in the Syrian-ruled Heights before the war. Many of the houses crumbled over the years due to the ravages of weather and time. Others were blasted by Israel Defense Forces troops during live-fire training exercises there. But most were wiped off the face of the earth in a systematic process of destruction that began right after Israel’s occupation of the Golan.

Only the Syrian outposts and army camps there have remained largely untouched, their concrete-and-steel fortifications searing reminders of the terror waged in the Golan against Israelis, who suppress memories of the civilian life that flourished in the alleyways and homes of Ramataniya and the other villages.

The 1960 Syrian census in the Golan Heights listed Ramataniya as having 541 inhabitants; on the eve of the Six-Day War, there were 700. According to most estimates, in 1967, the population of the entire area conquered by Israel there ranged from 130,000-145,000. The data are based on the census and a calculation of natural growth.

In the first Israeli census of the Golan, conducted exactly three months after the end of the fighting, there were just 6,011 civilians living in the entire Golan region. For the most part, they lived in the four Druze villages that remain populated to this day. A minority lived in the city of Quneitra, which was returned to Syria following the Yom Kippur War. So, in less than three months, more than 120,000 people either left of their own accord – or were expelled.

‘Hopeful truths’

In an article entitled “Hopeful truths of the new reality,” published in Life Magazine on September 29, 1967, then Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan presented his version of what happened to the Golan residents. The army broke through along the entire front stretching from the Jordanian to the Lebanese borders, to a depth of 20 kilometers. The entire area, apart from seven Druze villages, was now abandoned, he added, because as the Syrian troops retreated, the civilian population took its herds and fled eastward, afraid of being caught in the cross-fire or becoming targets of bombing and shelling.

Other Israeli politicians, army personnel and spokesmen described the Syrian population’s flight in similar terms. In a letter to the UN secretary general, Israel’s UN representative, Gideon Rafael, responded to claims by the Syrian representative that tens of thousands of civilians had been expelled from their homes following the war. Rafael wrote that “most of the population of the Golan Heights fled prior to the Syrian forces’ withdrawal. Out of a population of about 90,000, 6,404 remained.”

Newspapers at the time took a similar tack. An article by Yehuda Ariel in Haaretz in late June 1967 asserted that “the villages in the Golan were all abandoned without exception. The residents all feared revenge [attacks]. No man or woman thought to remain on their property and continue working the land. They abandoned everything and fled.”

Haim Isak, a correspondent for Davar who went on a press tour of the Golan organized by the IDF about a month after the war, wrote about a visit to a Syrian outpost and a village called Jalabina: “The [Syrian] soldiers were killed, or captured or fled. And among those who fled was also the entire noncombatant population – the women, children and also old people who were here. The only remaining life is abandoned animals wandering about thirsty and hungry …”

Not surprisingly, the so-called victory albums and magazines published after the war present a similar picture. In Davar’s magazine on the first anniversary of the conquest of the Golan, Ruth Bondy wrote: “The Arab villages along the roads are abandoned … Everyone fled, to the last man, before the IDF arrived, out of fear of the savage conqueror. The feeling one gets upon seeing the abandoned villages shifts from contempt for the meager huts that the ‘advanced’ regime managed to provide its farmers, and sorrow at the sight of the relatively nicely tended houses of the Circassian village Ein Zivan … Fools, why did they have to flee?”

Over the years, the Israeli narrative concerning the flight of Syrian civilians from the Golan during the war found its way into textbooks and historical literature. “In addition to the outposts, the Syrians had positions and fortifications in many of the villages in the Golan,” wrote Ze’ev Schiff and Eitan Haber in their 1976 book “A Lexicon of the Israeli Army.” “These villages were home mostly to Turkmens, Circassians and Druze. Most abandoned their homes during the Six-Day War. It was primarily the Druze who remained.”

In his book, “History of the Golan,” Nathan Schur, author of more than 20 books and 100 articles about Jewish history, quoted Israel’s official response to the UN vis-a-vis Syrian claims about the expulsion of civilians: “Prior to their withdrawal, Syrian military authorities instructed the inhabitants of the villages in the Golan to abandon their homes and property, and to immediately leave their villages for exile within Syria. Only the inhabitants of the Druze villages in the northern Golan did not heed this instruction. The inhabitants disappeared from all the other villages all at once.”

In a historical-geographical lexicon published by the Defense Ministry, the entry for the Golan Heights reads: “In the Six-Day War it was conquered by the IDF and a majority of its inhabitants fled.”

But throughout the years other evidence occasionally surfaced: stories told by soldiers and civilians who were in the Golan at the time, and either witnessed or played an active role in the expulsion of civilians, which they said was initiated by Israel. Surprisingly, even in the majority of the most serious historical studies, the writers tended to disregard these testimonies.

“I heard evidence that events did not really occur the way the official narrative maintained all these years,” said one prominent scholar, who several years ago published an authoritative book on the Golan. “I consciously did not get into it and decided to stay with the existing narrative. I feared that all the attention that would arise around the book would focus on this issue and not on the real heart of the research.” Another historian attributed his decision to go with the flow to a lack of desire to be labeled a “leftist”: “There was flight and there was expulsion. Even though this is considered a controversial subject, anyone who has studied the period even a little knows very well that there was some of both. Testimonies about expulsion and being prevented from returning reached me, but I didn’t have the tools to investigate them in depth … I didn’t see any point in digging into the issue, primarily so as not to be thought of forever as a historian who took a stance on this complex issue.”

Flight to the fields

As on the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts, on the Syrian front, too, the Israel military victory in 1967 was swift and decisive: Within 30 hours of fighting, from the morning of June 9 until the cease-fire went into effect the next day at 6 P.M., IDF forces seized control of a swath of land 70 kilometers long and some 20 kilometers deep, on average. The Syrian army, well equipped and deployed along the front, crumbled even before encountering the attacking forces, despite the topographical advantage it enjoyed.

The ground offensive was preceded by three days of artillery shelling and bombing from the air. Many of the Syrian outposts were hit in the bombings, as were a good number of houses, animal sheds and other civilian structures. And there were human casualties, too, of course. According to most testimony, the flight of civilians toward Damascus began then, and involved tens of thousands of people.

Under shelling, the morale of the Syrian troops at the outposts was low. The orders coming from headquarters in Damascus were confusing and no reinforcements were in sight. That’s when members of the military apparently began to flee. Testimonies collected in Syria later said the first to go were administrative units from rear bases, followed by senior officers from division headquarters in Quneitra and commanders of front-line units. Hundreds or maybe thousands of civilians, mostly relatives, left with the army personnel. And when the Israeli ground offensive started, the stream of people fleeing grew.

There is no question that many civilians joined the fleeing Syrian army forces both before and after the offensive. Many, but not all. A Syrian estimate a week after the war stated that only about 56,000 civilians had abandoned the Golan at that point. On June 25, the Syrian information minister, Mahmoud Zuabi, stated at a press conference in Damascus that just 45,000 civilians had left the conquered region. In the heat of battle, no orderly records were kept so it is impossible today to verify or disprove the figures, but testimony from Israeli soldiers also indicates that a fair number of Syrian civilians remained throughout the Golan. “I remember we saw dozens and sometimes even hundreds of them in the fields, outside the villages,” says Elisha Shalem, commander of the 98th Reserve Paratroop Battalion. After his battalion took part in the conquest of the northern West Bank, his troops were airlifted on the final day of the war to the southern Golan, near where Kibbutz Meitzar is now located. “Our mission was to penetrate as deeply as possible into the Golan before the cease-fire went into effect,” he recounts. “We were barely concerned with taking over outposts or villages. The number of encounters with the Syrians involving combat was very low in our sector. They were mostly busy retreating. While we were landing from the helicopters, a tank force and a patrol company from the Jordan Valley was coming up, and as soon as we joined up with the vehicles, we moved eastward very quickly. We didn’t stop along the way, so we couldn’t really gauge the scope of it. But throughout our movement eastward, all the villages big and small that we passed appeared to be abandoned. The army camps were also completely empty, except for a few soldiers who surrendered immediately when they saw us. But I clearly remember that we saw hundreds of people in the fields and outside the villages. They watched us, from a safe distance, waiting to see what the day would bring. The civilians were not players in the game, here or anywhere else in the Golan Heights. Even though some of the population was armed, we did not deal with them at all, at least in my battalion, even though we operated in an area with a relatively high concentration of villages.”

Shalem believes the inhabitants left the villages as soon as the shelling started, but says they didn’t abandon their land and apparently were waiting to return home once the battles ended: “It’s a behavior pattern we’d seen in earlier conquests in the war … Civilians flee their homes, but stay where they can maintain eye contact with the village, to see how things evolve. These were simple folks for the most part, not big politicians by any means, and in the absence of any leadership they did what was necessary to preserve their homes and property.”

Shalem’s account is supported by most of the testimonies of fighters interviewed for this article. Almost everyone who poked his head out of his tank or armored vehicle remembers seeing hundreds of Syrian civilians gathered outside the villages during the two days of fighting in the Golan. The accounts say many civilians were in fact heading east in convoys, sometimes with the retreating army, but that many also remained, in the hope that normal life would resume even under the occupying power.

Notebooks left behind

“The day the tanks began to conquer the Golan, we collected a small bundle of objects and headed out to the fields,” relates Nadi T., who was born and grew up in the village of Ramataniya, and now lives in the United States. He was 13 when the war broke out and remembers that aside from some elderly and sick villagers who stayed home, the other residents also went to the fields.

“We took a few things, a little food, blankets and clothes, because the nights in June can be cold in the Golan. I wanted to take my notebooks too and two books that I’d borrowed from a friend who lived in Hushaniya, but my mother said there was no need because soon we’d be back home, so I should only take the things I really needed.”

To this day, Nadi regrets not taking those notebooks, among them a childhood diary. Gone, too, were his books, his new bike and the gold medal for the 100-meter sprint he’d won in a district competition in Quneitra before the war. But the memories haven’t disappeared.

“We had a good life, a simple and modest life, without television and all the luxuries that kids grow up with these days. Maybe this is nostalgia, but all of my memories from Ramataniya are painted in beautiful colors. As a boy I would bathe in the spring next to the village. I still remember the taste of the water … I also used to hike a lot in the fields around the village and when I was 10 I built a treehouse in one of the fig trees in our yard …

“Farming was the main source of livelihood for the residents,” Nadi continues. “From a young age, we would work in the fields. For us it was mostly a game and we enjoyed helping our parents working the plots, which were very small. There were no tractors or other mechanical equipment. If I remember correctly, there weren’t even any water pumps. Most of the plots were watered by irrigation canals fed by either of the two springs next to the village. The houses only had electricity in the evening, when the generator was on.”

For three days during the fighting, Nadi stayed with his dog Khalil, his four brothers, his parents and elderly grandmother in the fields near Ramataniya, watching their house, trying to guess what would happen. He recalls that at night his father would go back to the village to milk the family’s two cows and bring them some pieces of dried beef and fig jam that his mother made. But he wasn’t permitted to join his father and never returned to his house after that.

Nadi came from one of the few Circassian families that lived in Ramataniya; the other residents were of Turkmenic descent. Today he lives in New Jersey, in the small Circassian community that emigrated there after the war. Some of his relatives still live in Syria, which is why he did not wish to reveal his full name or to be photographed for this article.

Like Ramataniya, the other villages in the Syrian Golan Heights also had largely homogeneous populations. Five villages in the north, for example, right at the foot of Mount Hermon, were home to Druze. The Alawites lived in three villages to the west – one of which, Ghajar, still survives. Around Quneitra were 12 Circassian villages; to the south were 14 Turkmenic villages. Christians lived mostly in villages along the road that leads from the southern part of the Golan Heights to the Rafid junction. The Golan was also home to Armenian, Kurdish, Mughrabi and Hourani minorities.

Almost 80 percent of the inhabitants in the Golan were Sunni Muslims, mostly descended from nomadic tribes that tended flocks there in the 19th century and later settled there. In 1967, only 2 percent of the area’s population were nomads. Also living in the Golan were 7,000 Palestinian refugees whose villages were destroyed during the War of Independence.

Most people lived in small farming villages of 200-500 residents. The main sources of livelihood for Quneitra’s 20,000 inhabitants involved agricultural commerce and the processing of local raw materials. Contrary to the popular notion in Israel, and based on scholarly research, only a small minority of the population was employed by the Syrian security establishment.

Records from the Syrian interior ministry branch in Quneitra also show that on the eve of the war, the Golan was also home to 3,700 cows, one to two million sheep and goats (depending on the season ) and 1,300 horses.

First 10 days

Ze’ev Schiff, Haaretz’s military correspondent, reported on June 16 that, “Yesterday, villagers who hid in the area started to be allowed to return to their villages. On the roads in the Golan Heights villagers were seen marching with their belongings toward their villages. Trucks were provided to transport the women and children.”

Davar reporter Idit Zertal wrote, from the Golan: “On a narrow dirt path, all of a sudden, this odd convoy appears … Women, children, and a few old people on foot or riding on donkeys. They attached white fabric or paper to sticks as a sign of surrender. When they got to the main road, an Egged bus full of Israeli soldiers arrived. The people of the convoy, trembling with fear, crowded against the bus and reached out toward the windows. The weary and dusty soldiers who’d fought here … [against Syrian soldiers] hiding in the homes of the villagers who were now asking for mercy, turn their heads. They cannot look at this awful sight of humiliation and surrender. An Israeli officer tells the returning villagers to go back to their homes and promises an old man riding a donkey that no harm will come to them. Only an army with a tremendous sense of power, with a sense of destiny, could treat the vanquished this way.”

But the attitude of this powerful army changed: In fact, on the same day the military correspondents visited the Golan and described the Syrians’ return to their villages, Col. Shmuel Admon, the IDF commander in charge of the region, issued an order declaring the entire Golan a closed area. “No one shall enter the Golan Heights region from the outside, and no one shall depart the Golan for an outside region, except with permission from the commander of IDF forces here,” said the order, threatening violators with up to five years’ imprisonment.

The movement of Syrian civilians was thus halted. IDF records show that dozens of local residents who tried to return home were arrested daily and brought to the courthouse in Quneitra. There, most testified that they had come to collect belongings that were left behind. Others said they’d intended to return for good. All were imprisoned and later expelled.

But those who managed to sneak through and reach home often found that nothing was left. “I don’t remember exactly when it was, but a few days after the end of the fighting, maybe less than a week, we received an order to start destroying villages,” says Elad Peled, commander of the IDF’s 36th Division in the war. For 10 days after the end of the fighting, his division was responsible for the conquered part of the Golan Heights, at a time when local villagers apparently attempted to return to their homes.

Peled does not recall which forces demolished the homes. “It was an administrative matter, I was preoccupied with the combat aspects,” he says, but adds, “With some of the homes no tractor was needed. It could be done with just a hoe.”

Peled recalls there was a clear policy determined by the IDF high command – “and it must have come down from the political echelon” – not to harm the Druze and Circassian villages. “For numerous reasons, the state had an interest in keeping them there,” he says, although he does not remember what the policy was in regard to other inhabitants.

At the end of the war, other officers in Peled’s division wrote a report, describing the battles and activities of the division’s various sub-units. A section at the end includes descriptions of operations vis-a-vis the civilian population during those 10 days that the Golan Heights was under its control, and says: “As of June 11, the military administration began to deal with the population that remained in the conquered area, with an emphasis on the Druze and Circassian minorities …”

This formerly confidential report was declassified and is in the IDF archives, well before the customary 50 years have passed – as is normally the case with such sensitive documents. Those who made it public ostensibly tried to conceal the continuation of that sentence, standard practice regarding matters that could endanger national security, and also something done apparently to reinforce a certain military version of events or to prevent embarrassment. It is possible, however, to make out the continuation of the sentence: “… and on the evacuation of a population that remained.”

Peled does not recall this part of the report or the precise orders given, but estimates that about 20,000 civilians remained in the Golan in those first days after the war, who “were evacuated or left when they saw that the villages were starting to be destroyed by bulldozers and they had nowhere to return to.”

Testimonies gathered from Syrian civilians in recent years, and by the UN, indicate that in the first stage after the war, only villages close to the old border were bulldozed.

Tzvi Resky, in charge of what was called the Tel Hai bloc during the fighting, and one of the people closest to GOC Northern Command David Elazar, was in the command headquarters throughout the war. He remembers that, “the houses were blown up immediately after the end of the fighting, wherever possible.”

Yehuda Harel, one of the first Israeli settlers in the Golan, remembers seeing the ruins of the village of Bania right after the war. Eli Halahmi, the official responsible for military intelligence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq back then, says the villages destroyed were probably “those we had a score to settle with from around the time of the war over water, villages that fired on Israeli communities or those from which cells set out to plant mines and carry out terrorist attacks in Israel.”

Amnon Asaf of Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch, who was evidently one of the first Israeli civilians to visit the Golan, sheds some light on Israeli destruction of the villages close to the border, in the southern Golan Heights, and their inhabitants: “In the very first days after the war, I drove with a friend from the kibbutz to the Golan Heights. We had a friend who served in an elite armored unit and we hadn’t heard anything from him, except that he might be in the Nataf area. It was forbidden for Israeli civilians to go to the Golan then, so we smeared mud on our jeep so soldiers would think it was a military vehicle and not stop us. When we were on the road around Lake Kinneret, below the cliffs of the Golan, we saw a big group of Syrian civilians, a few hundred people, gathered in front of tables with soldiers sitting behind them. We stopped and asked a soldier what they were doing. He answered they were doing pre-expulsion registration.

“I’m not a softhearted person, but I immediately had the feeling that something here wasn’t right. I still remember what a bad impression this sight left on me. But it was, de facto, like it was [with the Arab populations] in Lod, Ramle and other places in the War of Independence. I was in the Third Palmach Battalion in that war and even though I was wounded in battle before the conquest of Lod and Ramle, I knew this is what my comrades did. They would tell me about the expulsion when they came to visit me in the hospital and afterward, too.”

Meanwhile, Nadi T. and his family also left the Golan: “After the war ended we stayed for about another week with relatives in Hushaniya. We were prohibited from entering Ramataniya. At first, my father would still sneak in to milk the cows, but one time he came back upset and said soldiers had fired at him. He said it was a miracle he made it back safely; he’d seen another villager get hit. The next day he dared to sneak back, let the cows out of the barn, and with a blanket wrapped up some old pictures, some holy books and some of my mother’s jewelry that had been hidden.

“It was either the next day or the day after that Israeli soldiers assembled all the people left in Hushaniya. I remember they spoke for a long time with my father and the other men. A few hours later we were onboard trucks to Quneitra.”

Last inhabitants

From July through September, Syrian civilians were still occasionally seen moving about or hiding in the Golan, but the army tried to limit their movement. On July 4, Dado Elazar issued an order for a civilian curfew throughout the Golan “between the hours of 6 P.M. and 5 A.M.” He also issued two more orders limiting civilian movement. One mentioned confining Quneitra residents to the Christian part of the city. The second declared that various villages be deemed closed areas, and banned civilian entry to or exit from a large portion of locales in the central and southern Golan.

Menahem Shani, one of the first members of the Nahal core group that settled in Aleike, arrived in the area during this time. “Our first mission was to gather the abandoned animals from all over the Golan. Mostly there were cows, but there were also sheep and goats. Most of the inhabitants of the villages had fled and left the animals roaming free.”

Newspaper reports from the time say more than 2,000 head of cattle and 40 horses were rounded up. “We settled a part of the land that was ‘in the heart of the consensus’ then,” Shani continues. “People looked at us with admiration. We felt like pioneers. Dado always insisted that holding onto land meant plowing it.

“One time I rode a big Ellis tractor into the area of the Circassian village of Mansura. The Syrians used to work the land in small plots without machines; we removed the fences between the plots to create large fields that could be cultivated with tractors. In Mansura, when I went to tear down the fences, a villager came and stood there with his hands up in front of this big monster. He stood, facing someone who felt completely in the right, and watched his little plot of corn being trampled by the tractor.”

There are other accounts from Israelis who were in the Golan in those initial months after the war, saying that Syrian civilians were also spotted in the villages of Jalabina, Hushaniya, Dabah, Elal, Wasat, Za’ura, etc.

“Two months after the war there were still farmers who stayed to work their land,” confirms Emanuel (Manu ) Shaked, whom Elazar appointed commander of the Golan Heights about a month and a half after the fighting. During the war, he witnessed villagers fleeing to the fields, and now his job was to evacuate them.

Shaked: “When our Arabic-speaking soldiers were sent to talk to explain that they had to leave, they didn’t seem particularly angry or hostile. After the situation was explained, we gathered them in a group. We let them take belongings that they could carry in rucksacks, and sometimes we also helped them with trucks. Most went on foot, and some on wagons with horses. In Quneitra we handed them over to the Red Cross and the UN, who took care of transferring them to the Syrian side of the border. Some people protested or shouted, but no one resisted or fought us.”

Shaked insists that he and the forces who served under him did not expel a single Syrian civilian, but confirms that, in accordance with an order from high command, every villager found in the area under his control was taken to Quneitra and from there, in coordination with the Red Cross and UN, transferred to Syria. He says there were only a few dozen cases like that.

Red Cross spokespeople claim that every civilian who was transferred by them to Syrian territory after the war was required to sign a document attesting that he was doing so of his own accord. But they will not reveal the signed documents, or any data attesting to the number of people transferred to Syria under these circumstances, until 50 years have passed.

No return

By the end of the summer of 1967 there were hardly any Syrian civilians left in the Golan Heights. IDF forces prevented residents who’d left from returning, and those who’d remained behind were evacuated to Syria. On August 27, IDF General Command issued an order classifying 101 villages in the Golan as “abandoned,” and prohibiting entry to them. Anyone in violation of this order “was subject to five years’ imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 liras, or both.”

Every two weeks, a report about civilian life under the military administration in the Golan was submitted. About the last half of September, one such report said: “Our forces opened fire 22 times to chase away shepherds and infiltrators who approached outposts. Three Syrian and two Lebanese infiltrators were apprehended for questioning.” It is important to note that it is explicitly stated that these were unarmed civilians.

The above report also said: “Relative to the past weeks, the number of infiltrations from Syrian territory has decreased, due to the alertness of our forces who open fire at [those] who approach.”

This and every other report listed a few incidents. On September 27, for instance, “a Golani lookout spotted 15 people in Dabah. An army vehicle went out toward the village and fired in their direction. After the shooting, they fled.”

The army combed through seven villages in those two weeks, all of them were found to be abandoned. Also during that period, according to the report, 24 people were transferred to Syrian territory by the Red Cross.

The report on the following two weeks, in early October, cited more than 20 incidents of troops opening fire to stave off infiltrators. On October 3, “Outpost 7 in the Sahita area opened fire at an Arab woman and her child, who tried to cross the border into Syria. After the shooting, the soldiers tried to apprehend them but they disappeared.” On October 8, Outpost 10 in the Ufaniya area fired three volleys at cows and an unarmed shepherd: “The herd and the shepherd fled.”

In those same two weeks, a military administration patrol in Katzrin found a family consisting of a father, four children and a paralyzed old man; the report said the latter was transferred to Syria, but there was no mention of what happened to the rest of the family. During that period indictments were also issued against 14 Golan residents – seven for entering from Syrian territory and seven for crossing in the opposite direction.

All of the events covered in the reports were banned from publication at the time by the censor, whereas incidents in which IDF forces encountered armed civilians or combatants were given extensive media coverage.

In the summary of a meeting of the committee responsible for civilian affairs in the “held areas,” on October 3, in the defense minister’s office, there was a rare slip of the pen: “The expulsion will be carried out on the basis of the directive to prevent infiltration (and not as written on the basis of the ‘law’ which applies in Israel alone ),” the minutes read.

Officially, however, Israel continued to deny any evacuation or expulsion of civilians. In his piece in Life Magazine, Moshe Dayan wrote that after the war, the Red Cross approached Israel about allowing Golan inhabitants to return to their villages, but the Syrian government itself did not support this request, but rather concerned itself solely with “renewing the war against Israel.”

Dayan added that if there would be a severe winter, it was doubtful whether many of the homes in the abandoned villages would remain standing, since they were damaged in the fighting. Some were damaged and partly destroyed in the fighting, and the bituminous mud shacks needed to be shored up before the rains.

Many of the houses in the Golan did not, in fact, survive that first winter. The ceilings collapsed, as Dayan predicted. By the next summer, the chiseled stones from the structures were being collected for the construction of military outposts.

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In pictures

Children of Palestine




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