Nazem Khater, an aging apple farmer sits on his veranda looking out at the agricultural lands of Majdal Shams, in the occupied Golan. His father, and his father’s father, were also apple farmers, ploughing the same lands, producing the regions famous sweet Golan apples, and passing down the trade through the generations.
Majdal Shams, is one of the four Syrian Druze villages still standing in the Israeli -occupied Golan Heights. In 1967 Israel occupied the area, before annexing it- a move that is not recognised by the international community. A border fence was erected separating the village from the rest of Syria. In the process the arteries that connected the Majdal Shams residents with their homeland, their families and their culture, were severed. The village farmers who travelled the 40 mile journey to trade their apples in the Damascus markets were also severed from a crucial lifeline.
An estimated 130,000 Syrians fled the region, escaping the Arab- Israeli war, the Israeli military’s trail of destruction, and the subsequent occupation. In their exodus they left behind land and homes which became property of the State of Israel. A month after the war ended the construction of the first Israeli settlement began.
Today only Nazem’s memories can bring back the old Golan. Forty seven years since the occupation began, there are now 33 internationally deemed illegal settlements in the annexed territory, which are home to 20,000 Jewish settlers. Land confiscation, agricultural areas littered with land mines, an unequal distribution of building permits and discriminatory water policies are sucking the Syrian apple farmer’s trade in the Golan dry.
While the Syrian Druze farmers have an average of 20 km of land for agriculture, Israeli settlers have an estimated 80 km, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (UNOHCHR). Some members of the Arab population in the Golan estimate the water allocation disparity between the settler and Arab farmers is somewhere in the region of 4:1, with the Arab farmers paying triple the cost. During 1973-74, settlers were permitted 17 times as much as the Arab farmers, according to the World Zionist Organization (WZO).
In a desperate bid to irrigate their lands without the high price, the villagers built large rain collection tanks, but the Israeli authorities reportedly demanded they pay for the amount of rain they collected. They now sit unused and rusting, but residents of Majdal Shams claim even to let them go to waste they had to pay a licensing fee. “They are charging us for what falls from the sky,” says Nizar, one of the residents.
Water from Lake Ram– a large water source in the occupied Golan Heights is reportedly drying up as the Israeli water company Mekorot pumps it to the surrounding settlements. Lake Ram has long provided water for the irrigation of the apple orchards and agricultural lands of Nezam and his fellow farmers. The situation of Lake Ram has caused economic damage of about $ 20 million for the local Syrian farmers, in addition to the environmental threat, according to Golan rights group Al-Marsad.
“In the past, when the Syrian government had control of the Golan, the apple market was very good, since Israel has occupied the land; the settlers have come to plant apples here. They receive more water which they pay less for, and they have more land at a cheap cost,” said Nazem. “It’s difficult for us to compete on the Israeli market.”
In 2005 an agreement was brokered between the Syrian and Israeli governments, allowing the Golan apples to be sold to the Syrian government. With the assistance of the ICRC, the Druze farmers started transferring their produce, helping to alleviate the crippling damage caused by low apple prices on the local market and large surpluses remaining after the harvest. As a result, Nazem, who helped broker the deal, was able to visit Syria for the first time since the occupation began. “It was something magic.” he said. “I remember so much about Syria.”
For those in Syria who still recall the taste of the Golan apples, the decision bought them a taste of home and wave of nostalgia. “My grandmother used to tell us about how my grandfather had so many apple trees in Golan,” said Bishr Issa, 31, a civil engineer from Damascus whose family originated in the Golan Heights, to the New York Times. “It’s a great feeling, to think that I may be eating apples from my grandfather’s trees.”
According to Nazem, the apple trade has not been damaged by the Syrian civil war, with 2012 bringing in a sale that was one of the highest. He is a staunch pro-Assad supporter, and makes no effort to hide his political stance. Rumours exist claiming apples farmers have faced an added pressure to show support for Assad, with their livelihood depending on sales to the Syrian regime.
Nazem’s sister lives in Syria. After marrying a Syrian soldier, she left Majdal Shams. As soon as she crossed into Syria with her groom she relinquished the right of her or her children to ever return- those permitted to join families or spouses in Syria were given permission on the understanding it was a one way ticket, and vice versa. His trips under the capacity of an apple farmer were one of the few times the siblings have been reunited since she left their village over three decades ago.
“The wall of Berlin has been destroyed, why can’t this be?” he says.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.