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Publisher\Editor Don Canaan
June 30, 1995, V3, #120
All the News the Big Guys Missed
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The Golan from the Syrian Perspective
By Laurie Kassman (Kuneitra, Golan Heights)
Syrian and Israeli military chiefs concluded their meeting this
week in Washington in an attempt to work out security arrangements
for an eventual peace agreement. That treaty will hinge on the
return of the Golan Heights to Syria -- 775 square miles of
mountain border area that Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli
war. Correspondent Laurie Kassman visited the destroyed town of
Kuneitra, the former capital of the Syrian Golan Heights for a
closer look at what the dispute is about.
Kuneitra is a ghost city that sits under the watchful eye of an
Israeli military observation post on top of the mountain known as
tell Abu Nada.
It was once a flourishing market town and a crossroads for trade
between four countries -- some 15.5 miles From the Lebanese border
and 37 miles from the Jordanian border. Kuneitra is only 19 miles
away from what Syrians still refer to as Palestine.
Today Kuneitra is a pile of rubble. Only the skeletons of a few
buildings remain. A 400-bed hospital is only a shell, the few
remaining walls filled with the scars of mortar shells and
artillery fire. A sign on the outside tells visitors the hospital
was destroyed by Israelis and then used for target practice.
Israel seized Kuneitra and 1,240 square miles of the Golan Heights
in the 1967 Six-Day war. The troops drove out about 150,000 Syrian
Syrian efforts to retake the Golan in the 1973 Yom Kippur war ended
in defeat. Two-thirds of the area has remained under Israeli
control. Some 20,000 Syrians who stayed behind have lived in the
territory ever since.
After the 1973 war, Israel gave the town of Kuneitra back to Syria,
but first soldiers moved in and destroyed it with bulldozers and
The Syrian government has not touched the skeletal remains of
the hospital, the church, a school and the town theater that
stand amid the piles of concrete. It has become a war monument
on the edge of the barbed wire barrier that marks the demilitarized
zone and the area beyond, which Israel annexed in 1981. A small
museum farther up the road displays maps and photos of Kuneitra
before and after.
The high mountainous range behind Kuneitra puts the area at the
heart of Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The highest peak rises
nearly 9,000 feet, giving whoever controls it, a clear view and
military superiority over the vulnerable open plains below. Three
vital rivers have their source here, too.
Syrian and Israeli military chiefs are meeting to try to work out
security arrangements to satisfy the concerns of both sides. There
is talk of a demilitarized zone, early warning systems and
international observers to keep the area calm.
But both sides are still arguing over the timing and extent of an
Israeli pullout and dismantling of Jewish settlements on the
Golan Heights. Israel has talked of a phased withdrawal with a
test period for normalizing relations. But Syria's vice president
reflects a general Syrian attitude when he says Israel must leave
the Golan Heights before there can be any talk of normalization.
Syrian Merchants Apprehensive About Doing Business with Israel
By Laurie Kassman (Damascus)
As the peace process moves forward, so do Syrian efforts to
transform a centralized economy into a market with a larger role
for the private sector. Since 1991, new laws have eased
restrictions and encouraged private investment.
But, many ambitious businessmen want to see the reforms speeded
up to better prepare for the competition of a peacetime
Potential investors complain about the continuing bureaucratic
snags and Syria's burdensome state banking system. They want to
see improvements in the infrastructure, customer service and
training in new technologies.
Syrian executives worry Israel's more liberal economy already
gives it a competitive edge. One executive still opposed to
peace with the Jewish state insists Israel will dominate the
market once the Arab boycott is ended.
Economic analyst Nabil Samman says the fear is part of the
psychological adjustment to peace, and the uncertainty of how
Syria will deal with direct competition from Israel. "The souk
mentality is: I can compete with the whole world. But when you
talk about the businessman, a strong businessman, he knows what
Israel is all about and Israeli economy. Then he will say -- well,
we are not as developed as the Israeli economy. We have a
limited economic sector, industrial sector, and the Israeli economy
is well-developed. Israel's economy -- per-capita income -- is
about $14,500 while in Syria it is about $1,000."
Syrian businessman Thaer Laham works in food processing. He says
facing the unknown is his biggest fear, but he believes Syrian
businessmen are ready for the challenge. "We do feel we are
untested, we have not been proven, we have not had a chance to
prove ourselves. So I think Syrian businessmen and the Syrian
people will have a chance to prove ourselves in the near future.
We do not know what we are going to be faced with, and fear of the
unknown is our biggest problem."
Laham says he is ready for peace, but he has experienced only
war and hostility with Israel. He is not sure how he will react
when peace is established. "I do not know if I will ever buy an
Israeli product. I do not know if I will ever deal with an Israeli
company as a businessman. I doubt it. At least not in the near
future. However, just the prospect of talking about peace, I did
not think about peace only four or five-years ago."
Another Damascus resident cites Egypt's 16-years of what he calls
a cold peace with Israel and suggests normalization -- both trade
and cultural -- will take generations. He says he gets upset
when his child asks to watch cartoons from the Israeli channel on
his satellite television.
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