April 7, 2011
Posted: 806 GMT
"This is our happy-land," said Hamad Awidat standing next to a minefield in Majdal Shams, a village in the Israeli-controlled northern Golan Heights, as he points at the Syrian side of the disengagement line.
Nestled on a hillside with an Israeli Army base situated at its center this Druze village is a mere stone's throw away from Syrian-controlled land, but because of the minefields separating its residents from their families on the other side, it might as well be a world away.
"I would rather live under a Syrian dictatorship, than under an Israeli democracy," said the 26 year-old television producer who harbors no illusions about the economic benefits of living on what he calls the "wrong side of the minefield."
"Economically I can tell you the situation here is not perfect but very good. You can see, it's very good. We live in a nice situation. We are working, making money. It's nice. But because of the pressure of the political situation, we cannot enjoy much with our money. This is the problem," he said, taking another drag on his cigarette.
The political no man's land of people living in Majdal Shams and the villages of Buqata, Mas'ada and Ein Kuniya puts them in a unique situation in the Middle East, a region where the unusual, strange and sometimes downright bizarre meet on a daily basis.
The Druze are a secretive monotheistic religious sect that trace their origins to 11th Century Egypt. They number about a quarter of a million with most concentrated in Syria, Israel and Lebanon.
While many of the Druze living inside Israel today have Israeli nationality and are staunchly loyal to the Jewish State, their counterparts in the northern Golan rejected Israeli nationality in 1981 and have remained loyal to Syria until this day.
This situation has left its residents living in a state of political limbo for several decades. During the 1967 war Israel occupied the Golan heights. Later, 1981, this area was annexed by the Jewish state. This annexation has never been internationally recognized.
Some residents of these villages still retain a Syrian passport, but most merely hold a travel document issued by the Israeli authorities, leaving them yearning for an identity they believe would be defined if control of this part of the Golan Heights reverted to Syria.
"Somebody born in the Golan Heights, with a travel document, has no identity, "says Hamad.
Like the rest of the region, the pro-Syrian residents of the four Druze villages have been watching events unfold in Syria with great interest, and this past weekend took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration of their loyalty to the Syrian president Bashar Assad.
"We support Bashar Assad, we like this system, we like this government and he will be our president forever and we are happy with this, "said Hamad , who has the unusual distinction of having earned a Masters at Tel Aviv University after studying for his Bachelor's degree in Damascus.
Waving Syrian flags and carrying large posters of the Syrian leader, clergymen, women and children marched through Buqata village chanting slogans and singing Syrian songs .
"Today we went to the streets to send our word to the Syrian people and to the world. We wanted to show that we are Syrian and belong to the Syrian Republic. We are all under the Syrian leader, Bashar Assad. This man, this is our leader. We love Bashar Assad," said Ata Farhat a journalist for the Golan Times and a correspondent for Syrian State television who lives in Buqata.
Young men on horseback led the march through the center of Buqata village followed by children some of whom were dressed in Syrian officers uniforms, and local men who chanted slogans and songs, while the women lined the sides of the road throwing rice and flowers at the procession.
"Our enemy is not Bashar Assad. Especially in our situation. Our enemy is Israel. We are in an occupied area," said Hamad.
On deeper questioning the complexity of the situation becomes more apparent. Asked about the present situation in Syria and the unrest that has left some anti-government protesters dead, Hamad said the government's violent response was necessary to maintain the status quo.
"If I was a president and I had a country with 20 million people and I know that my system or my chair was in trouble because of some 100 or 200 guys moving around and making problems, so I don't have a problem killing them. It's a way of keeping this government or this system strong, " he said.
Echoing arguments made by the Syrian president, Hamad claims the unrest in Syria is being caused by outside forces trying to destabilize the region.
"To control a group you should part all of them, you know. And I think Israel and America are trying to do this in the whole of the Arab world. People here know these things and they do not want Syria to be divided. This unrest is only positive for the American and Israeli program in the Middle East and they know if they succeed in destroying Bashar Assad's system, they control all of the Middle East," he said.
With families of their Druze community still residing in Syria it is fair to assume the Golan Druze might be reluctant to speak out against the regime. Also they may want to make sure they are sitting on the right side of the fence should their villages one day revert to Syrian control under a regional peace plan that, for now, seems little more than a distant hope..
Syria and Israel have been in a state of de-facto war since 1967, and while the border has been quiet for decades now, neither side has stopped eyeing the other with unease.
The confusing geographic complexity of the region seems to rub off on people like Hamad, who while speaking only for himself, says he supports Assad in one sentence, but in the next says he really doesn't care as long as the Golan Heights is freed from Israeli control.
"I care about my issues and my business here. I am in an occupied area an I am looking for my freedom. I don't care who is in power, whether it is Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, Ahmedinejad, or somebody else. All he should know is the first issue he must work on is the Golan Heights issue. We have been occupied for over 40 years, the people can't wait any longer," said Hamad.
More importantly its seems, like anyone else in the world Hamad is yearning for his identity, one he and others like him believe Israel cannot give him but a Syrian passport can.
"I am fighting for my identity now, I want my identity. To get my identity and put it in my pocket. To be able to go to any airport in the world and move in freestyle. I want to be able to go inside the duty free and take all of my time, you know and not to be caught up in security. I'd like to buy whiskey. Why don't I have this chance?" he said.