Earlier this month, under the cover of rain and thick fog, several Hezbollah fighters snuck across the Lebanese border into the mountainous terrain of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms.
Their mission was clear: To plant an improvised explosive device, (IED), on a road frequented by Israeli military personnel and vehicles. As an Israeli patrol passed, the IED detonated, causing damage to a Humvee and an armored D9 bulldozer, injuring those inside it.
Hezbollah claimed responsibility and the operation was seen as a response to Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah military commander Samir Al Kantar on December 19, on the outskirts of Damascus. An Israeli air strike had targeted a high-rise building in the Jarmana district, where Kantar was staying.
For Hezbollah, but perhaps more so for the Syrian government, Kantar’s assassination and his role in Syria are part and parcel of a much larger picture that’s being played out; the ongoing war with Israel over the occupied Golan Heights and the race against time to halt the changing realities on the ground.
Who was Kantar and What Was He Doing in Syria?
At the age of 16, Kantar, a Lebanese Druze, was sentenced by an Israeli court to five life terms plus 47 years for his role in a 1979 military operation in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya. He was eventually released in a prisoner exchange deal between Hezbollah and Israel in 2008. He joined Hezbollah’s ranks soon after.
Following the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, Kantar was tasked with heading up the Popular Syrian Resistance (PSR), an obscure group that was created in 2013.
Backed by the Syrian government, and supervised and equipped by Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the PSR’s aim was to recruit local Syrians from the southern Quneitra province, near the Golan Heights. The recruits were tasked with carrying out operations against Israeli targets inside the Golan—part of a wider front stretching from Naqoura on Lebanon’s southern coast to the furthest point on the Syrian southern border—alongside Hezbollah and its allies in the war against Israel.
“Despite the ongoing crisis in Syria, the country is still at war with Israel,” said a Syrian source familiar with the PSR. “In order to preserve Syria’s sovereignty in the area because of Israel’s aid to Al Qaeda affiliated groups, Syria took the step to activate a national popular movement,” he added.
Kantar was a key commander in the PSR, recruiting and training fighters, most of whom were Druze from the Golan area. Enough of a reason for Israel to assassinate him according to Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Israel’s Golan Heights Project
Israel occupied the Golan Heights—a mountainous arable terrain of around 1,200 square kilometers-—in 1967 during the Six Day War. Purging the area, the Israeli army expelled over 100,000 indigenous Syrians and destroyed the majority of the villages. An area that included 340 Syrian villages and farms was reduced to four Druze villages: Majdal Shams, Ain Qinya, Masadi and Baqatha.
In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Heights Law effectively annexing the Syrian territory in a move that was denounced and rejected by the international community. The Israeli military further attempted to force the Israeli nationality and ID cards on the area’s residents.
“People would collect these IDs and burn them in the town square,” said Bassam Safadi, a journalist and resident of Majdal Shams. “The residents in the area all got together and signed a ‘National Declaration’ stating anyone who carries the [Israeli] citizenship will be excommunicated from society.”
Fiercely loyal to the Syrian state, over 95 percent of residents rejected the idea of becoming Israeli citizens. Today there are approximately 23,000 Druze residents in the Golan Heights and the large majority of them have maintained strong relations with their relatives in Syria.
Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, Golan residents were able to visit Syria through the Quneitra crossing for education and trade purposes.
According to a Syrian intelligence source, only 667 Golan Syrians have taken the Israeli nationality since 1981 to date. “A large number of them took the citizenship because they married Israeli-Arab women from Galilee,” he said.
Yet after the Syrian war started and opposition groups took over the Quneitra crossing, interaction between the two sides was deeply compromised.
Golan residents also claim that Israel has been using the Syrian war to cement its territorial control over the Golan.
“In the last two years alone, 150 Golan residents have submitted their applications for the citizenship,” said the Syrian intelligence official.
“The Israelis are pushing the Golan residents to take on the citizenship by telling them that Syria is disintegrating and the Syrian state is weak, so therefore the only option left is the Israeli state,” said Sham Zahwa, another resident from Majdal Shams.
Israel’s citizenship project is mainly targeting the younger generation—those who were born right after the Israeli occupation and do not have a deep connection to Syria.
“The majority of residents say they are Syrians and under occupation,” said Tobias Lang, an expert and researcher on minorities in the Middle East with a special focus on the Druze community. “But among the younger Druze, who don’t have direct contact with Syria, it may be different.”
“The crisis has given Israel an opportunity to work on the new generation; telling them to bring their relatives from Syria because they’re cutting heads [there] and the situation is getting worse,” said Safadi. “Those who have taken the citizenship say it is because they’re not getting anything from Syria, that they want to travel and live their lives.”
Zahwa believes that by opening up the economy and boosting the tourism industry, Israel is attempting to draw a more attractive future for Golan residents compared to what Syria can offer.
“Israel is trying to make a new alternative, a political, economic and social alternative, because of the situation in Syria,” she said.
At the same time, Israeli officials have gone into overdrive with their naturalization campaign and have rejected any notion of reviving peace negotiations with Syria.
Naftali Bennett, a senior Israeli official and leader of the right-wing party The Jewish Home, said it was high time the world recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan.
“I want to challenge the entire world… I want to give the international community an opportunity to demonstrate their ethics.
Recognize the Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” he said at a conference in June last year. “Who do they want us to give the Golan to? To Assad? Today, it is clear that if we listened to the world we would give up the Golan and [Daesh] would be swimming in the Sea of Galilee.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even hinted that the current situation “allows for a different thinking” on the Golan Heights, during a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama late last year.
“I think it is unlikely the U.S. or the international community will agree to a formal annexation,” said Andrew Tabler, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute.
“But I think a de facto recognition of Israeli control will continue for the foreseeable future.”
One of Bennett’s plans for the Golan is to resettle 100,000 Israelis in the territory over the next five years, adding to the 20,000 settlers already living there.
“Since late 2013, Israel has allocated millions of dollars to the Golan infrastructure,” said Lang. “Before that it was provided by the locals themselves, but now the Israelis are investing and it is clear they want to bring the Golan into the fold.”
According to Christopher Phillips, an associate fellow who focuses on Syria at Chatham House, the lengths Israel is going to on the ground in the Golan will have more of an impact on its control over the area.
“What is more significant is the de facto development Israel is doing on the ground in the Golan, which has seen a major shift in the last couple of years,” he said.
“The idea of expanding settlements, for example, would completely transform the demographic balance and would really shift the balance to be heavily in Israel’s favor.”
“Within Israeli internal politics we have seen a major shift to the right over the last few years, and the very idea of land for peace, which is what the Golan Heights was being used for before, has diminished significantly,” he said.
As for Golan residents, they say Israelis currently in the stage of cementing the building blocks of an Israeli future for them.
“The heads of the municipalities are selected by the Israelis,” explained Safadi. “Now they’re telling people ‘why do you want someone we hire, why don’t you do it yourself and make your own elections?’”
But there is a catch. In order to participate, residents must become Israeli citizens. “Some people are now calling for elections, and are willing to go with the Israelis,” he said. “This builds for the future. The next step would be joining the army. This is what the Israelis are trying to convince people to do.”
Until today, the majority of the Golan residents reject the Israeli project, convinced the territory will eventually return to the Syrian state. “Everyone says the Golan is Syrian,” said Zahwa.
As the Syrian source pointed out, there are still half a million refugees who were evicted by Israel currently living in the countryside of Damascus and its surroundings. “These people want to go back,” he said.