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Syrian students make rare return to Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

Interminable delays, explosions, add frustration and fear to once-a-year reunion with isolated families
Israeli soldiers stand guard as families wait to cross border (MEE / Emad Madah)

QUNEITRA CROSSING, occupied Golan Heights - Standing under the pounding summer sun, Asad Safadi waited for Israeli authorities to let his son, on a rare visit home,  to pass through the only crossing between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the rest of Syria. For some of those wanting to pass through, it was a six-hour ordeal, and an equally long wait for friends and relatives waiting to greet them.

"We have been waiting outside in the sun since before 9:00 in the morning," Safadi, told Middle East Eye. "It's very hot, and I am with my three small children."

His son, Milhem Safadi, is one of 47 Damascus University students who were allowed to cross the border into Israeli-occupied land and return home to the Golan Heights on Tuesday July 8, the only time this year the crossing will be open to them. An estimated 150 relatives, some smiling and others crying, waited for their return, knowing that in two months, their chidren will  be allowed to go back to Syria, and won't return to the Golan to  again before July 2015

Two explosions nearby on the Syrian-controlled side of the border added to the tension.  At the sound of the blasts,  Israeli police and military made the families wait some hundred meters from the processing office.  "Maybe it was a rocket," a police officer, who declined to be interviewed, told a nervous relative waiting for his son to return. "But no one was hurt."

An Israeli military spokesperson told Middle East Eye: "There was an explosion at the Quneitra Crossing when mortars landed in the area. We are unable to comment on any details."

The Israeli flag flies at the border crossing (MEE / Emad Madah)

Students told Middle East Eye that they passed through the Syrian checkpoint and were processed by United Nations without delay. Yet once they arrived at the Israeli side, they were searched thoroughly and only allowed to pass one by one.  

"We wouldn't have had to wait six hours if it weren't for the Israelis," explained Milhem, a 23-year-old medicine student. "None of us expected to arrive to the border so quickly. The route has been dangerous in the past, but we passed through one Syrian army checkpoint in Damascus [about 80 kilometres away]and then made it to the Quneitra [crossing] in just 45 minutes."

"There, the Israelis searched us and questioned us over and over. It is their usual racism towards Arabs," he added, explaining that there is a fear that Israeli authorities will not let them pass for security reasons, as has happened in the past.

Though studying in Damascus and other universities across Syria used to be a preferred option for residents of the Golan Heights, the civil war in Syria and Israel's increasingly strict policies have made that much less viable.

Difficult predicament

Because Israel and Syria have no formal relations, the coordination process for Golan Heights residents traveling to the rest of Syria is handled by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).  Israel's occupation authorities only permit visits for academic and religious purposes.

Golan Heights residents who marry Syrian citizens are allowed to pass into the rest of Syria once, but they cannot return to the occupied area.

"The students must file a request to study in Syria with the Israeli Ministry of Interior. Once approved, the ICRC then contacts our delegation in Damascus, who coordinates with the Syrian government," ICRC spokesperson Ran Goldstein told Middle East Eye.

According to the ICRC, more than 300 students crossed back and forth between Quneitra crossing each year up until 2010. Then in the autumn of 2013, only around 70 students returned to Syria, most of them studying for medical or pharmaceutical professions, studies that are  difficult to transfer to other universities.

Students and their relatives also told Middle East Eye that Israeli authorities have for the last year denied requests for visits during other most breaks in the academic year, effectively allowing them to come home only during the summer.

With the death toll in Syria now estimated to have surpassed 170,000, and the civil war becoming increasingly sectarian, students are placed in a difficult predicament if they want to continue their studies.

"There were no new students [from the Golan Heights] in 2013 or 2014," Goldstein said. "The students still in Syria are third-, fourth- and fifth-year students."

Emad Madah, 36, says he studied at Damascus University in 2002 and 2003 before being denied permits by Israeli authorities for alleged security reasons related to his political activism. Once back in his hometown of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, his only options were to study in Israeli or to go abroad to complete his education.

Madah, like all students from the Golan Heights, was provided with a full scholarship by the Syrian government and monthly living expenses while studying in Damascus. After transferring to Haifa University in central Israel, he had to pay about 12,000 Israeli shekels ($3,500 per academic year. Studying abroad is generally more expensive than Israeli universities.

Because Israeli universities often do not have courses equivalent to those in Syria, students also suffer from being set back semesters  when their credits cannot be transferred.

If that were not enough, there is the problem of language," Madah  told Middle East Eye, explaining that switching from studying at an academic level in Arabic to Hebrew set many students back several semesters. "Many students spent three or four years studying in Arabic in Syria. Once they were unable to continue there, they had to start studying in Hebrew, a language they learned in high school but didn't use at home or in our community."

Worried for Syria

The students returning this summer to the occupied Golan Heights do so at a particularly tense time. Nearly three-and-a-half years after a mass uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began, there is no indication that the violence will abate.

Though fighting has yet to penetrate the heart of Damascus, there has been much bloodshed on the outskirts, such as at the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp.

Asad Safadi said: "Of course we all worry about our kids while they are studying in Syria. The situation in Syria is very scary today, and we never know exactly what is happening."

The fighting has also edged closer to the Israeli-occupied part of the Golan Heights over the past year.

In early June 2013, Syrian rebels briefly took control of the Quneitra Crossing before the regime's army regained control. The town of Quneitra on the Syrian-controlled side has since become the site of repeated fighting due to local residents being split in their support for the regime or the opposition, as Middle East Monitor recently reported.

Just over two weeks ago, a mortar attack from inside Syria struck a car of civilian contractors for the Israeli Defence Ministry in an area near the demarcation line, killing a 15-year-old boy and wounding four Israeli soldiers.

Families wait at the cross as soldiers stand guard (MEE / Emad Madah)

In response, Israel's Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon blamed the Assad regime and said Syria would "pay a high price".

The Israeli air force subsequently bombed several Syrian military sites and killed one soldier, according to a statement released by the Syrian army.

Citing Israel's ongoing military operation in the besieged Gaza Strip, the military spokesperson declined to comment on the security situation in the occupied Golan Heights.

Local residents accuse Israel of using the ongoing violence in Syria as a pretext to further strengthen its institutions of occupation in the Golan Heights. Majdal Shams-based activist Aamer Ibrahim, 24, rejects Israel's claim that it is only opening the crossing just once a year for security purposes and due to the lower number of students.

"Even before the crisis in Syria began [in March 2011], they only opened the crossing a few times a year and only for students and religious travelers," he told Middle East Eye. He said that Israeli policy has always tried to isolate residents of the Golan from religious, cultural and political ties to Syria, and that "there is a real fear that we will be completely separated from our country in coming years”.

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