The Syrian community of Majdal Shams – one of 4 Syrian Druze villages in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights – take delight in storytelling. Huddled around fires in their apple orchards they talk of memories of their youth, of their homeland and of their families living just across the border.
During the 1967 Arab- Israeli War, Israel occupied the Syrian Golan Heights region. While most of the Syrian villages were destroyed and their residents fled, some 7,000 remained.
The area was eventually annexed by Israel in a move not recognized by the international community- and the remaining 7,000 Syrians were segregated from the rest of Syria and their families residing there.
Between the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the Golan and its annexation in 1981, family applications for reunification were permitted, but most were rejected. Those who were permitted to join families in Syria were given the understanding that it was a one way ticket, and vice versa.
As a result, the stories they tell today are ones tinged with nostalgia, constructed under the eyes of the Israeli authorities and narrated by a people straddled between two identities.
Majdal Shams resident Naser Hasan, had a brother, Aadel, who moved to Syria after fighting for the Syrian army during the war. He married a woman from Damascus and they had six sons and five grandsons. Aadel died in 1998 and his wife died just forty days later. Naser, who had only met his brother's family once, applied to attend the funeral, but was denied permission by the Israeli authorities.
Finally in 2007, he gained permission to visit but after a family member was fatally injured in a road collision on the way to the border crossing the visit had to be cancelled, and the family never received another opportunity.
"This is all about emotion. Separation creates great heartache. Even though we sent over a small amount of money for them to build a house it is not enough," he said to Golan human rights organisation, Al-Marsad.
Like many families, Naser used kept in touch with his relatives by yelling conversations through a megaphone in the 'Valley of the Tears' –a meeting spot across the 1967 ceasefire line. In 1996 he purchased a phone and with the advent of Skype and Facebook, the Valley became a thing of the past for him.
Even though technology has drastically advanced since the beginning of occupation, the situation for the families has remained at a standstill, or even declined. Marriages between the two sides are still have to be coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and held in the buffer zone straddling Syria and Israel, and once married, when one of the parties crosses sides to reside with their new groom or bride, they relinquish their right to ever return.
Meanwhile, the 2003 'Nationality and Entry into Israel' law almost completely prohibits lawful residents of Israel being reunited with spouses from what Israel defines as 'enemy states'- which includes Syria.
Israeli policies leading to the separation of families is not confined to the Golan region. Restrictions on freedom of movement between the Palestinian Territories has split families residing in Gaza and West Bank, meanwhile the above law prohibits marriage between Israeli citizens and Palestinians- Palestinian citizens of Israeli make up around 20% of Israel's population.
In 1991, the ICRC began organising visits to Syria for the occupied Golan residents, however only select groups of people were eligible. At present religious Druze men, students, 'apples' and women over 70 are allowed to make trips across the border- prior to 2009 no women were permitted to visit Syria.
Majdal Shams resident Najar Abu Jamal 's sister moved to Syria after her marriage three decades ago. While she has been permitted to visit Syria twice since growing older she claims these visits fall short. "Usually these visits are miserable more than happy. They mostly occur in unhappy occasions," she said.
"We have these applications and usually these families have one demand in life, one will, to see once their daughter, son, lover, before death. In many occasions Israel has not permitted these families and if they do it is too little too late.
When they arrive the relative has died. Mother, fathers, brothers." said Najar.
Over coffee in his betting shop, Khaldun, also from Majdal Shams, remembers in minute detail the ride he took as teenager from Majdal Shams to Beirut over half a century ago. The story, the telling of which gives him great pleasure, is not about the bus journey, but about a time when his land wasn't dissected by borders and of a freedom that only exists in the past.
His father, mother, four sisters and three brothers live in Syria, however he was separated from them during the war and resides in the occupied Golan. He was caught attempting to visit them and was imprisoned for four years.
"I was arrested 4th June 1967. I was 18. I haven't seen them in Syria since," he said.
For the Majdal Shams citizens who lie just 40 miles from Damascus, the sounds of shelling can be heard rumbling in the background, serving as a reminder of the danger their families are facing in the Syrian conflict that has already claimed over 150,000 lives.
"I am a Syrian under occupation. My state is Syria, but because I am under occupation and a refugee, I cannot do anything for my homeland. If I was in Syria, I would have to sacrifice," says Khaldun.
"But if we are under occupation we have to keep somehow silent because we cannot help the revolution and we cannot help the regime."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.