Settlers divided over the future of Golan: Sarah Helm in Meron, Golan, finds that not everybody is convinced Israel should keep control of the Heights

Click to follow
IN January 1968 the Golan Heights was a 'very romantic place', says Atalia Winer, smiling as she recalls her pioneering days as a young kibbutznik, coming to live in Meron Golan, Israel's first Golan kibbutz, two miles from the new lines with Syria months after Israel took the Golan in the Six Day war of June 1967. 'We were all young, about 20 years old. We were volunteers with high ideals. We were very pure. We thought about equality and communal living. We were told in those days that wherever there was a border there must be a kibbutz.

'But as it turned out we were wrong. It might have been necessary 45 years ago. If there is full peace we should give the Golan back. I love it here, but peace is more important than territory. I have two children. My brother was killed in the Six-Day War.'

According to the Golan Settlements Committee, people like Mrs Winer, now 46, are the exception among the 13,000 Jewish settlers now living on the Golan Heights. The Committee's glossy brochure gives every argument for keeping the Heights. 'Know the Syrian enemy,' says one chapter. 'Jewish history in the Golan - thousands of years of settlement and heroism,' says another. The committee welcomes plans just announced for Israel to hold a referendum on the Golan issue, saying the majority of Israelis would say no.

Opinion on the Heights itself, however, is far more divided than the pressure group claims. In the present atmosphere it is almost taboo to speak openly in favour of handing back territory, and an accurate assessment of opinion is therefore almost impossible.

A false air of confidence is maintained by settler leaders to ensure nobody breaks ranks. 'As soon as one thinks about leaving so will many others,' said one leader. 'Then confidence will collapse.' The Israeli government, wishing, perhaps, to send mixed messages to Syria, is helping to bolster confidence by keeping up investment in the area. Despite hints that Israel may give back some land, dollars 7m ( pounds 4.7m) has been set aside in the 1994 budget to build settler homes.

The Jews who came to the Golan Heights are a different breed to the settlers found in the rest of the Israeli-occupied territories. In the West Bank and Gaza they are either religious extremists or settlers moving for economic reasons. The Golan settlers believed they were acting in the tradition of the original frontiersmen who first settled Palestine. Some on the left of the kibbutz movement opposed the movement to the Golan, but the majority encouraged it on the basis that, if peace ever came, the settlers would have to move - a point the Golan kibbutzim appear to have forgotten.

Many veteran kibbutzniks living in northern Israel's Hula valley, below the Golan Heights, who used to have guns trained down on them, went up to the Golan to help set up the new settlements. 'After the '67 war we went up and looked down through Syrian binoculars and were shocked to see how close we had been to their guns,' said Dina Porat from Kfar Blum.

Since those early days the Golan 'idealism' has been diluted. The settlers often go out to work now instead of picking kibbutz apples. 'It's like anywhere else here now,' says Mrs Winer.

While a referendum on the Golan today would produce a strong 'no' vote, opinion is clearly fluid. And it is not on the Golan that Mr Rabin will fight his real settler battles if new peace deals are made. Not even religious settlers say they would fight to stay. 'We would not oppose leaving once a political decision had been made,' said Dror Ben Haim.