Golan talks pose identity crisis for the Druze: The Arabs of the Heights are divided over a return to Syrian rule, writes Sarah Helm

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IN THE northern Golan Heights there is a town with an acute identity crisis. It is called Majdal Shams.

The flat-roofed houses, scattered untidily under the slopes of Mount Hermon, indicate this is an Arab community. The newer pitched- roofed Jewish settlements, nearby are much more tidily arranged.

In the town square sit elderly Druze Arabs in white headdresses and billowing leggings. On closer inspection, however, the Arab identity of Majdal Shams is not so clear. Leaning against a wall are four teenagers, wearing Tel Aviv-style close-cropped hair, jeans and T- shirts. In the Shalom Restaurant Israeli soldiers help themselves to hummus while young women listen to American rock and read a Hebrew newspaper questionnaire: would you say yes or no to giving back the Golan to Syria?

Today in Washington, Syria and Israel re-launch negotiations over the future of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Most of the 13,000 Jewish settlers living on the Golan would answer 'no' to the questionnaire, knowing that 'yes' means they must move back to Israel. For the Golan's 15,000 Druze Arabs, however, the question is harder. Fawzi abu Jabal, 40, says 'yes' - he wants to be out from under the yoke of Israeli occupation, to resume his Syrian nationality again.

Mr abu Jabal has spent 10 years in jail, accused by Israel of spying for Syria. Like all Golan Druze he is forced to carry an Israeli identity card, and has looked on powerless as Israel confiscated his lands.

Taiseen Maray, 33, also wants to be Syrian. A human rights activist, he mans an office called the Arab Association for Development. He accepts that activities such as his would probably be closed down under Syria's autocratic rule. But he says: 'It is Israel that is trying to convince us here that Syria is all bad. It is their policy of divide and rule. They try to brainwash the Druze, telling us we are not really Arabs. We are better than Arabs. Israel has democracy, they say.

'But the democracy in Israel is only for the Jewish. If the situation in Syria is bad I will have a responsibility to make it better. I would fight any attempt to close this office. But I am Syrian. I want my national rights.'

Mr Maray says the majority of the Golan Druze long to be Syrian again. On Saturday they turned out in strength to mourn the death of President Hafez al-Assad's son. Every day, at the famous 'shouting fence', Golan Druze shout through megaphones across the disengagement line to their Druze friends and relatives living in Syria on the other side. And each April the town celebrates Syrian independence, for which many here fought and died.

But Mr Maray also knows that Israel's 'propaganda' has worked on many of the Golan Druze - particularly the young, who have known nothing but Israeli occupation. The Druze have been an easy target for Israeli 'infiltration'. Pro- Syrian underground groups are quickly suppressed.

In 1981 Israeli law was extended to the Golan Heights and the Druze villages were de facto annexed. The Israeli curriculum is taught in Druze schools. The economy has become almost wholly dependent on Israel and the majority of Druze work in Israel. Ghassan Ibrahim, a 21-year-old construction worker, shows no eagerness to resume a Syrian identity. He earns 'good money' in Israel, he says. He would like to be Syrian, he says, but he likes the Israeli discos and bars.