On the Border

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Somewhere between a pastoral holiday village and an urban center, between Israel and Syria, and between the past and the future, the Druze town of Majdal Shams is striving to redefine itself and move forward. Dolan Abu Saleh, who has served as the local council head for the past decade, shares his fascinating perspective on the changes in Majdal Shams and where it is headed.

By Maya Roman

 

 

For the past decade, Dolan Abu Saleh has served as the local council head of Majdal Shams. Appointed to the position at the age of 29 by the Israeli Ministry of Interior he has shaped the largest Druze community on the Golan Heights to a great degree.

“This isn’t something to take for granted: a young local council head of a Druze community who is authentic, but this is also a challenging and interesting position,” he says of himself.

Unlike the vast majority of Majdal Shams’ 11,000 residents, Abu Saleh is an Israeli citizen. When Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the Six Day War in June 1967, almost all the region’s 120,000 residents retreated with the Syrian army or left shortly afterwards. The exception was the Druze population, some 7,400 people living in three small villages plus the town of Majdal Shams. Following the war they were granted Israeli residency, and are eligible to take out Israeli citizenship if they apply for it. But, as they all have family and relatives across the border in Syria, most maintain their Syrian citizenship and pass it on to their children. As a result, only 10% of the Majdal Shams population has opted to become Israeli citizens.

Abu Saleh walks a thin line, striving to balance between his commitment to the residents of Majdal Shams and the importance of cultivating ties with the Golan Regional Council and other Israeli bodies. Despite the great difficulties his position entails, it is under his leadership and thanks to the extraordinary cooperation he forged with the Golan Regional Council that Majdal Shams is developing and expanding in an intriguing manner.

“First of all, Majdal Shams is the largest community in the Golan. It is not a typical Druze village. It is a modern, growing town,” he says during an interview in his office. “There is night life and there are many places to go out in Majdal Shams. It is an impressively lively community. This development came after the local council, together with the residents, understood that it is important to emphasize everything related to tourism in all its aspects. The residents began advancing initiatives in the field of tourism and the council addressed developing suitable infrastructure. Not long ago, we developed a new pedestrian mall and now we are working on the façade of a second one. In addition, the council accompanies and encourages every initiative, from the time it is a mere idea up to the opening of a tourism-related business.”

Thus like all the communities in the Golan, Majdal Shams is working to increase its income from tourism. New restaurants are popping up, hotels are being constructed, and roads are being renovated. The town still does not look as charming as it aspires to be, but the change can be felt in the air, perhaps because the desire to focus on tourism is not only an economic issue for the residents of Majdal Shams.

“We understood that when you want to develop tourism, it requires being welcoming, exemplary hosts and to greet every visitors to the town with a smile,” Abu Saleh says. “Tourism reinforces people’s positive side.”

To promote tourism the Abu Saleh wants to rebrand his town.

“Majdal Shams, straddling the slopes of Mount Hermon is reminiscent of a European ski resort,” he says, “but we try, as much as possible, not to rely solely on the fact that we are high up on a mountain and near the only ski slope in Israel. We try to create a tourism continuum that goes beyond the winter ski season. So we began to develop other tourism businesses connected to the fact that this is an agricultural town. The flowering of our cherry and apple orchards is magnificent and together with the harvest season constitutes a base for including agricultural tourism in a travel package to the northern Golan.”

One of the greatest obstacles facing the attempt to turn Majdal Shams into a European ski resort is related to the local infrastructure. Years of neglect on the part of various Israeli authorities created significant differences between the Druze and Jewish communities of the Golan. Abu Saleh is reluctant to discuss government investment in the town’s infrastructure.

“We don’t complain,” he says simply, before agreeing to provide a few details. “The only government decision that affects the town and provided budgets for the four Druze communities in the Golan was made after the local councils of these communities appealed to the Israeli High Court of Justice over the unequal distribution of budgets, while emphasizing their need to receive funds to develop infrastructure. In the wake of the court appeal, the government decided to provide a budget for this, starting in 2013. The government decision applied to a specific time period that ends this year. Today we are working on a proposal for a new government decision in which we include a more broadly defined budget that will allow us to deal with issues that are unique to the Druze communities in the northern Golan.”

As to whether receiving government funds is controversial among the Druze residents of the Golan due to their complex civil status in Israel, he says, “When it comes to funding, no population opposes having funds allocated to it. When you give, there is no problem. When you ask for legitimacy however, the question mark comes to the forefront.”

Question Mark

The question mark floating over the Golan’s Druze communities has become part of life here. The communities’ status is unlikely to change in the near future, but every move that the State of Israel makes connected to their residents is likely to have implication for their relatives in Syria.

“I think and hope that the decision makers understand how sensitive this is,” Abu Saleh says. “Every step that publicly connects the residents to the wellbeing of the State of Israel is liable to be problematic for our relatives on the other side of the border.”

The problematic position of the Golan’s Druze residents raises the question of where to go from here. The uncertainty that was forced on the residents of the region generates discomfit, yet Abu Saleh remains optimistic and unworried.

“I think that the state needs to invest more in this area,” he says. “The Druze villages of the Golan were placed on budgetary hold for many years. As a result infrastructure development has suffered especially vis-à-vis the Israeli settlements on the Golan. Today, an attempt is being made by the government to close this gap – once this is done, we will find the right time to address the affiliation with Israel.”

The data on Majdal Shams does provide grounds for optimism. The town and its population have changed greatly over the past few decades. The census conducted in 1983 found that 30 percent of its residents had no formal education. In 2008, when the last census was conducted, this figure dropped to 8%. During the same period, the number of residents with an academic degree rose from 0.3% to 13.8%. This trend has continued in the last decade.

“What distinguishes the Druze communities, and especially Majdal Shams, is the percent of academics. There are two reasons for this: on a psychological level, when you are far from the center of the country, you invest more effort into getting an education and bettering yourself. The number of male and female students in the town is equal; the fact that the women here pursue an education distinguishes our town. The other reason for the large and growing number of Druze academics from the Golan is the opportunity offered to our youth to study at Damascus University in Syria free of tuition and without having to meet any admissions criteria. These benefits spur young Druze to study high-quality professions such as medicine, dentistry, and architecture.”

It is fascinating to see the positive ways in which residents’ ties to Syria shape the town. Despite the formative years that many of the town’s young people spend in Syria, Abu Saleh says they all return to Majdal Shams.

The change in educational opportunities led to a change in the professions of the town’s residents. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, slightly more than 25% of the residents work in construction, however, there is a very wide distribution of professions. A significant percent of residents works in real estate, commerce, and education, among other fields. In 2008, a relatively low number of residents stated that their profession was agriculture. Abu Saleh explains this agriculture is not profitable. Most of the town’s residents still work in agriculture, but not to earn their livelihood.

Many of the young people who return from Syria work as doctors or lawyers, but since they are not always able to find a job in Majdal Shams or even in the Golan, they travel to the center of Israel to work. They rent an apartment near their place of employment and return home to Majdal Shams every week or two.

Despite this wrinkle on the employment horizon, Majdal Shams is flourishing. Abu Saleh says that people do not move away from the town, but to it. Druze from the villages in the Galilee and Golan are moving to it because of its reputation as a developed town. It also has become known as “a place where everyone who wants to open a new page in life comes to,” he says.

Majdal Shams is flourishing not only due to immigration, but also due to natural growth. It is a very young community – 4,000 of its 11,000 residents are below the age of 18. In order to best provide for the needs of its young residents, Majdal Shams invests a great deal in education.

Good Neighbors

Abu Saleh undoubtedly has criticism of the Israeli authorities, even if he tones it down and conveys it in a precise, minimalistic manner. On the other hand, when it comes to the Golan Regional Council, he has only praise.

“The cooperation between the Druze and Jewish communities in the Golan is unprecedented,” he says. “There is greater, more noteworthy cooperation between the Majdal Shams Council and the Golan Regional Council than among the Druze villages in the Golan. The council has a staff that works in harmony and knows how to develop and build. Every step that the Golan Regional Council takes, whether short- or long-term, always includes the Druze communities of the Golan.”

This cooperation has recently borne some surprising fruit. Some 250 acres are being transferred to the town’s jurisdiction and more than 1,000 residential units for young couples will be constructed on it. The Golan Regional Council gave this land to Majdal Shams, expanding the wave of building and renewal washing over the town.

“We received this land in the wake of my request to Eli Malka, the Golan Regional Council head, who is very supportive,” Abu Saleh says. “He immediately expressed willingness to help and brought the proposal to the Golan Regional Council. The decision to transfer 250 acres from it to Majdal Shams passed unanimously. This cooperation, in my opinion, is worth being noted as an example to many neighboring authorities.”

The expansion is felt in every part of the town. New buildings are going up and new hostels and restaurants are opening. While the changes are positive, they also spark some concern that they may change the delicate balance that characterizes the town.

“There is a possibility that Majdal Shams will maintain its pastoral character, but the worldview of the young generation, together with the rapid developments, are more likely to win in the end,” Abu Saleh says. “We try to preserve the character and heritage of Majdal as much as possible, but there is no doubt that the village is developing into a city.”

Majdal Shams’ entry into an urban, modern world is expressed in the rise of hotels opposite bed-and-breakfast establishments, the opening of commercial and tourism businesses, and the industrial zone’s expansion.

 

 

The article is an abridged version of the full article that appeared in the ERETZ Golan Issue.

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