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In silent horror, Golan settlers await pull-out

AS THE sun slid beneath the tree tops on the Golan Heights yesterday, workers were busy nailing up yet another campaign banner in Qatzrin's town square. "The people are with the Golan," it declared.

As the Israelis and Syrians sat down for peace talks in Washington, thousands of miles away a massive publicity campaign was unfolding within the small, but fiercely disputed, northern plateau whose fate is now under discussion. For 32 years, the Golan Heights' 17,000 Israelis have been able to claim to be kings of the castle - occupying strategically vital land overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Now they may have to leave, an idea they do not like at all.

Yesterday, as President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister, and Farouk al-Sharaa, Syria's Foreign Minister, made their opening statements, crowds gathered outside cafes in Qatzrin, the region's largest town, watching the politicians on television in mute horror. They winced in disgust as Mr al-Sharaa took to the podium to announce that "it goes without saying that peace with Syria means the return of all of its occupied land". In Qatzrin it does not go without saying. In fact, its 7,000 residents have a great deal to say about it.

The place is, they say, the fruit basket of Israel, the destination for two million tourists a year, the home of the country's finest wines, the source of its water - in short, a small and indispensable slice of mountainous paradise. More importantly, they argue, it is the front line, land which they were encouraged to populate by the Israeli government after its army seized it in the 1967 war, and which for three decades they have developed with their own labour, driven by Zionist aspirations. "We feel we are being betrayed," said Israel Eshed, 44, who has been farming for 27 years. When he arrived, his village, Eliad, did not exist; now there are 60 homes. "We were sent here by the Israeli government, and now they are telling us that our mission is complete. But we can't give everything up, just like that."

Leading the campaign is the Golan Residents Committee. In the week since Mr Clinton's sudden announcement that talks had resumed, their headquarters in Qatzrin have become a hive of activity. Marla Van Meter, one of its activists, moved to the Golan Heights 16 years ago from California to live on a kibbutz. She said: "What kind of road to peace will this be, if it is strewn with uprooted families, destroyed communities, and ruined lives? I don't get it. What other Western country would put up with it?"

The Israelis of the Golan Heights, who share the plateau with some 17,000 Druze Arabs, bear little resemblance to the stereotype of the right- wing settler. Fifty-seven per cent voted for Mr Barak's Labour party. "The Golan was Labour's baby," Mrs Van Meter said. "We feel like we have been abandoned by our mother."

There is uneasiness too with some of the political alliances they must make if the peace deal is agreed by Israel and Syria, approved by the Knesset and put to a referendum in Israel. Their allies so far are the right-wing Likud Party, Russian political groups and settlers from the West Bank, whom they do not much like.

So far, the Golan Heights' Jews are committed to fighting the battle within the law. But public opinion in Israel is evenly split. "As a responsible mother, and a citizen of Israel, I hope that I will behave in a lawful and responsible way," Mrs Van Meter said. But the emphasis was heavily on the word "hope".