After 40 years, could the ice be melting on the Golan Heights?

It is one of the most contentious strips of land on the planet. But as Donald Macintyre discovers, there are signs of a new willingness on both sides to find a solution
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Najwa Hamsa Amasha, a widow with four grown-up children, cries briefly as she remembers her last visit to the family home in Damascus 21 years ago. "When my mum saw us off, she said, 'Maybe it's the last time I will see you'." Her late mother's premonition was right. She has never been able to return since, not even for her mother's funeral. The Syrian capital is just 20 miles to the north-east of this Druze village in the foothills of the great snow-covered, 9,232ft peak of Mt Hermon. But the geopolitics of the Middle East means it might as well be on another planet.

Mrs Amasha, who came here in 1979 after marrying a man from the village, is now permanently cut off from her native city by the border between the territories controlled by the two most mutually hostile neighbouring states in the region. Fringed by lethal minefields, Majd el Shams is the northernmost village of the Golan Heights, the fertile and famously beautiful 1,100sq km plateau which was seized from Syria by Israel in the Six Day War, and which, almost 40 years later, stands in the way of peace between Damascus and Jerusalem.

Mrs Amasha's children speak perfect Hebrew as well as Arabic. But she has never doubted she is still in Syria. Like more than 90 per cent of her fellow Druze in the Golan, she refused to become an Israeli citizen after Menachem Begin's government passed a law annexing the Golan in 1981. But brandishing her blue "laisser passer" Israeli travel document - which has the chilly word "undefined" printed in the box marked "nationality" and would preclude her from entering Syria from Jordan even if she could afford to make the journey - she explains that she has made just two trips to Amman in the past two decades to see four of her six siblings.

Mrs Amasha's strong desire to see the Israeli-occupied Golan returned to Syria has more to do with missing her family than politics. At the weddings of two of her children - she has a beloved 16-month-old granddaughter Talia - "I wasn't happy; I cried because my relatives weren't with me to see it." But she would like to see a "comprehensive peace in the whole Middle East" in which every country - including Israel - was in harmony with its neighbours. "My dream is to be able to drive to Damascus in half an hour," she says. That may seem more of a fantasy than a dream. And yet if a significant body of expert opinion within Israel, not to mention the US, had its way, it might just be attainable within Mrs Amasha's lifetime. The revelation of three years of secret Swiss government-brokered talks between Israelis and Syrians has injected new momentum into a debate over whether it is time to take the Syrian President Bashar Assad's sporadic peace feelers seriously and start talking about handing the Golan back to Syria.

Alon Liel, the former Foreign Ministry director general who led those talks, believes that since talks broke down on the Golan during Ehud Barak's premiership in 2000, "everything has changed". And that Syria is now ready to "switch orientation" with consequences which go far beyond the Israeli-Syrian conflict alone. Mr Liel said this week: "If we can pull Syria out of the camp of Islamic fundamentalists and break its association with the Hizbollah, Hamas and rebel insurgents in Iraq, then that is of great value to us all."

Dr Liel, now spearheading a movement to persuade a deeply reluctant Ehud Olmert to sanction full-blown talks with Syria, said he was told repeatedly by Israeli officials that the US would not allow Israel to make them official. And so far that line from Washington has held. But this week two former secretaries of state with deep first-hand knowledge of the region, James Baker and Henry Kissinger, repeated on Capitol Hill that dialogue with Syria, not least over Iraq, was in the interests of the US. Mr Baker suggested that Syria could even persuade Hamas - embroiled yet again yesterday in lethal factional battles in Gaza with its rival Fatah - to recognise Israel.

The Lonely Planet's guide to the Middle East neatly sums up the landscape of the Golan and the scars on it left by its turbulent 20th century history; captured by Israel in 1967, overrun by Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur war and recaptured by Israel soon afterwards: "It remains a lovely area of rich agricultural developments, traditional Druze villages, and wonderful national parks and nature reserves. You'll also see trenches, bomb shelters, bunkers, bombed-out villages, minefields and a host of modern ruins." Could this picturesque and bloodily disputed stretch of land, a mere 45 miles long, now hold the key to the most seismic and beneficial change to the region since Israel's peace treaty with Egypt, perhaps since the formation of the state itself in 1948?

There are, of course, many obstacles. Nowhere is opposition to a deal more pronounced than among the post-1967 Jewish settlers in the Golan itself. Ramona Bar Lev lives in the biggest settlement, Katzrin. "We believe the Golan should stay Israel's for ever," she said. "Because we have been here for 40 years and what we have accomplished here in that time, I would humbly say, is amazing."

Israelis in the Golan such as Ms Bar Lev reel off statistics to show how important all the pioneering work has made the heights to Israel. Most importantly, they say, the Golan affords Israel total command of the Galilee basin, east as well as west - it "controls" 30 per cent of its fresh water resources. Then, they point out its ranches supply 40 per cent of Israel's beef, more than 30 per cent of fruit and 38 per cent of Israel's rapidly rising wine exports. Ms Bar Lev, who remains "very anxious" about a possible deal, doesn't believe there will be war without one. " And I don't think [Mr Assad] will open the border for terrorists [to infiltrate Israel], though other people say he will."

Secondly, one problem in the joint document that was drafted in 2005 during the secret talks before they were aborted because of Israel's refusal to make them official, is that the Syrians are insisting that the border should revert to that of 4 June 1967 rather than, as Israel would certainly prefer, the old 1923 Franco-British border between Syria and Palestine which allows Israel a controlling strip of land along the eastern shores of the Galilee. That is, Dr Liel admits, "bad news. But they were not flexible on this point".

Whether this difference could be finessed as President Bill Clinton thought he had before the breakdown of talks in 2000, remains to be seen. But Dr Liel is clearly satisfied that Mr Assad wanted - and wants - to negotiate in earnest.

Nor, it seems, did the Syrian-American negotiator Ibrahim Suleiman reject a demand for up to 15 years of confidence-building measures - potentially far-reaching for the West as well as Israel - before the Golan was actually handed back. "I think that it is clear to Syria today that it will not get the Golan Heights as long as it is in the 'axis of evil'.

"No way. Israel has to announce that the sovereignty of the Golan Heights is Syrian. But they didn't demand the land before there is evidence that they have changed. That is dramatic. It is worth trying."

Materially most Druze, with farms or jobs, are relatively comfortable here. They also live in a freer society than they would face in Syria under the present regime. Moreover the refusal to take Israeli citizenship is in part a recognition that if they did they would have little chance of staying on their land if they accepted it. Nevertheless in the village of Bukata, with its statue commemorating the heroes of the struggle against the French in 1925, Suleiman Awasha, 59, a religious Druze, can remember every day of the Six Day War - the bus journey from a blacked-out Damascus and the 7.5-mile walk from Kuneitra. And he is still proud of his little act of resistance at the war's end. Finding an abandoned Syrian army jeep, he camouflaged it with leaves and branches, fondly assuming the troops would soon be back to recover it. His 19-year-old granddaughter Waed, bilingual, of course, in Hebrew and Arabic, and working in the family bakery, admits to watching Israeli TV as well as Al Jazeera. But she too feels Syrian - and wants to go to university in Damascus. "Life here", she says, "is regular, but something is missing. Like a nationality".

Oddly, Dr Liel's belief in the importance of a deal also strikes a chord with at least one Jewish Golan kibbutznik. Gary Black, now 55, came to Mevo Hama in the southern Golan directly from Manchester in 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur war.

He has brought up his children here, in an era, as he points out, when settling in the Golan was acceptable even on the left because it was thought necessary for Israel's security.

And he loves the land. But acknowledging that he is in a minority - and that even his own children disagree with him - he says, albeit reluctantly: " My heart is here. But my head says if we want to achieve peace not only with Syria but the rest of the Arab world that will entail withdrawing from the Golan Heights. How it will work and how long it will take I don't know. But I don't see any alternative to some sort of withdrawal from the Golan."

The plateau's bloody history

* The Golan Heights has been fought over by rival powers for the past 2,500 years. A plateau of rich volcanic soil with a number of vital waterways, the Heights bears evidence of life dating back more than 5,000 years. A number of Old Testament Hebrew tribes were said to have come from the region.

* The armies of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Turkish Ottomans have all fought for control of the strategically vital plateau. In 1894 there was a failed attempt by one of the first Zionists, Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, to set up a Jewish community.

* Captured from Syria by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War, the Heights is a constant sticking point in negotiations between the countries which, in turn, has had a major impact on the wider peace process.

* At the time of its capture more than 90 per cent of the Golan's inhabitants, mainly Druze Arabs, fled or were expelled from the region and the first kibbutz appeared shortly afterwards in July 1967.

* During the 1973 war, the Syrians briefly retook the Heights but were driven back after the Israeli army recovered from the initial surprise of the joint Arab invasion, timed to coincide with Yom Kippur.

* In 1981, the Knesset recognised Israeli "laws, jurisdiction and administration" over the region, effectively annexing it. The UN responded with resolution 497, calling the annexation "null and void". To further assert Israeli hegemony, Druze living in the region were ordered to become Israeli citizens.