Discussions of the Israeli-occupied territories generally treat the Golan Heights in terms of strategic significance and water resources, seldom in terms of the 16,500 Syrians living under Israeli rule today. [1] While in some ways their experiences are comparable to those of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, in other ways the Golan occupation illustrates a unique formulation of Israel’s neocolonial ambitions in the region.

Israeli education policies have been an important tool of social and political control over Syrians in the Golan. The younger generation comprises a large portion of the total population, and the school system constitutes the single biggest employer in the Golan villages. [2] The Israeli authorities have geared education policies to instill in Golanis obedience and loyalty to the Israeli state. But education has also been an important tool for popular resistance.

The Druze Card

During the 1967 war, 95 percent of the population of the Golan Heights, 130,000 people in 129 villages, fled or was expelled by invading Israeli forces. Only six villages remained inhabited, with a total population of 6,396. [3] Except for the geographically isolated village of Ghajar, inhabited by ‘Alawi Muslims, the only Arabs permitted by the Israelis to remain were Muslims of the Druze sect.

Israel has historically promoted the Druze as a “favored” minority. Among Palestinian Druze who had remained inside Israel after 1948, the Israeli government successfully cultivated the notion of Jews and Druze as two “non-Arab minorities” in the region, with compatible interests. [4] Israel similarly hoped that the Syrian Druze in the Golan would embrace Israeli rule on the grounds of communal interests, and would help to justify the prospective annexation of the region on the grounds of “self-determination” for the local inhabitants.

Contradictions in Israel’s Golan policies were apparent from the beginning. The Syrian Druze were part of the “favored” minority, but remained a population under military occupation. A military officer ran the local school system, and Israeli curriculum for Arabs replaced the Syrian curriculum. [5] The Golan school system was incorporated into the Israeli educational system but, like schools for the Arab minority in Israel, lack of facilities and funding made for a generally poor quality of education.

Another problem was the mass exodus of the population, which caused a severe shortage of teachers. The military government appointed high school students as teachers, while firing some qualified teachers who remained in the area. The objective was to fill the schools with teachers who would compliantly implement Israeli education policies. [6]

Many older Golani students dropped out of school in 1967. Some had to help support families left in financial hardship by the war. Others, believing the occupation would end quickly, did not want to attend Israeli-run schools. The closing of the Qunaytra high school, after the city’s population was evacuated during the war, exacerbated the dropout rate. Many students never resumed their education, even after a high school was opened in one of the villages the following year. [7]

The first indication that a majority of Syrian Golanis were not going to adapt peacefully to Israeli rule came in October 1970, when masses of people took to the streets to mourn the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and to protest the continuing occupation. High-school students led the demonstrations. The military government attributed students’ participation to pressure by a minority of troublemaking pro-Syrians. It was difficult for Israelis to grasp that these “Druze” could behave like “Arabs” in mourning Nasser’s death. The Israelis responded by arresting many people and firing many teachers. [8]

At the end of 1972, Israel discovered underground cells passing information to Syrian intelligence across the ceasefire lines. [9] More than 150 people were involved in the underground groups, which constituted quite a large proportion of the total population. Among those arrested were about 15 teachers, as well as students and recent graduates. The arrests were a political embarrassment to Israel, but many of those arrested were the most active in local politics. The military authorities exploited the resulting vacuum by appointing people willing to collaborate to administrative positions, and giving appointed local councils more authority. [10] In the longer term, however, this experience served to strengthen anti-occupation consciousness by making heroes of those who had been secretly active and revealing the scope and intensity of anti-Israel sentiment.

Carrot and Stick

The 1973 war forced the people of the Golan to face the fact that the occupation would last longer than they had initially expected. Through the end of the 1970s, resistance continued on a relatively low scale. [11] While leaders and activists were arrested, punished or harassed, there was less of a tendency to impose collective punishments. Israel hoped to neutralize pro-Syrian loyalties by not interfering with economic growth in the Golan. [12]

The political stalemate forced people to consider new educational options. Between 1967 and 1973, few Golanis attended Israeli universities, their only option for post-secondary education. After 1973, a few more students went to universities in Israel, despite a still strong psychological barrier against such constant and intense contact with Israelis. Because primary and secondary schools in the Golan were now part of the Israeli educational system, students became fluent in Hebrew. But the generally poor educational quality in these schools posed an obstacle for students wanting to go to university.

In order to find new opportunities for university education, Golanis petitioned the Israeli authorities for permission to send students to Syria. With the International Committee of the Red Cross serving as the intermediary, Israel agreed to allow 10 to 15 students each year to attend Damascus University, provided Israeli authorities could choose the students. Israel hoped in this way to develop better relations with local traditional and religious leaders. Between 1976 and 1981, 65 students from the Golan went to study in Syria.

Local schools provided the authorities with a potential base of social control. Through the imposition of an Israeli curriculum, the authorities hoped to undermine the influence of pro-Syrian sentiment among young people. In 1978, when the Israeli government set up a new “Druze” educational sector as a step in the formal separation of the Druze from the rest of the Palestinian minority inside Israel, the new “Druze” curriculum was incorporated in the Golan as well. Course titles included “Arabic for Druze,” “Hebrew for Druze,” “History for Druze” and even “Math for Druze.” The new curriculum included the intensive study of Zionism and Israel, but very little about the contemporary Arab world. [13] Golanis deeply resented having their religious identity promoted as the pillar of their sociopolitical being. For Israel, these educational reforms were necessary measures to prepare Golanis for formal annexation. By the end of the 1970s, the authorities were offering Israeli citizenship to any Golani who wanted it. Less than 100 applied. Because of a strong collective position to ostracize anyone who accepted Israeli citizenship, only 17 people chose to keep it. [14] Faced with this collective resistance, Israeli authorities arrested activists, instituted collective harassment and punishment, and fired many public sector employees, mainly teachers, involved in organizing the community against the Israeli citizenship campaign. [15]

Annexation and Strike

On December 14, 1981, the Israeli Knesset annexed the Golan Heights. Golanis responded with mass demonstrations and short strikes. When it became clear that Israel would not rescind the annexation, people declared an open strike on February 14, 1982 which lasted nearly six months. The military cut off the villages from the rest of the world. Soldiers went door to door trying to force people to accept Israeli citizenship. In the summer of 1982, attention shifted to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The strike ended when the authorities agreed not to force citizenship on the population. The Syrians of the Golan, like the Palestinians of East Jerusalem — also annexed by Israel — are officially classified as “non-citizen residents” of Israel. Their citizenship is left undefined.

The strike was a major turning point in resistance to the occupation and a catalyst for social transformation. Golani students studying in Israeli universities at the time established solidarity groups with the Israeli left and sectors of the Palestinian community in Israel. To counter the Israeli media image of the strike as the work of a small minority of pro-Syrian radicals, they helped to publicize the position of the Golan population — a considerable feat, given that the villages had been cut off. For students in the Golan, though, the strike meant the loss of the better part of the academic year. Schools did not provide any compensatory programs the following year.

The strike provided women with a unique opportunity to play an active role in the political and social life of the community. Women took advantage of protections afforded to females in traditional society to put themselves on the front lines during confrontations with Israeli soldiers and police. And when the Israeli military forced its way into peoples’ homes, women were the ones who refused to accept the IDs and demanded that soldiers leave. Consequently the strike had an indirect effect; there has been a dramatic increase in the number of girls who have finished secondary school since 1982. While only one woman went to university prior to the strike, dozens of women have studied in Israeli universities and abroad in the years since then.

The strike deeply affected sociopolitical relations more generally within the community. Political activists initially stood behind the traditional leadership, while the religious leadership provided an umbrella under which decisions where taken. Because of their participation in resistance activities, religious leaders enjoyed a temporary increase in influence over secular aspects of communal life, but they found themselves later challenged by a more activist secular leadership. The decision-making process during the strike was characterized by unprecedented and wide-scale community participation. For example, the decision to start an open-ended strike was made in the Khalwa mosque of Majdal Shams with thousands of Golanis attending — almost every adult male from all the villages. Implementing decisions and engaging in resistance activities was done mainly by younger people. This fostered the emergence of a new young secular leadership that included ex-prisoners, students and graduates.

Post-Annexation Policies

Since 1982, Israeli governing policies have combined repressive and cooptive measures. Israel dealt aggressively with demonstrations of resistance among the population. Organized events such as the commemorations of Syrian independence day, the Golan strike, Land Day and, since 1988, the Palestinian intifada were met with wide-scale arrests. In the area of education, Israeli officials gave all teachers in the Golan an ultimatum: Either accept citizenship and enjoy the benefits of job security, or refuse citizenship and work on the basis of a yearly contract. Many activist teachers were fired and replaced by unqualified or inexperienced people. [16] Israel canceled the program for Golanis to study in Syria as reprisal for the strike. Once again, the only option was Israeli universities.

But the increasing demand of high school graduates required a new option. In 1983, Syria and the Soviet Union reached an agreement to allow Golani students to study in the Soviet Union on scholarships paid by the Syrian government and the Syrian Communist Party, and issued through Israel’s Rakah (New Communist List) Party. From 1983 until 1989, about 250 Golani students studied in the Soviet Union.

Even though most Golanis did not like the Israeli school system, they appreciated the importance of education. Aside from teachers’ salaries, almost every education-related expense was covered by the community. About 65 percent of the cost of building a new high school in Majdal Shams in 1988 was funded by local donations. In 1991 and 1992, three science and computer laboratories were mostly financed by community donations.

Strategies of cooptation hit a new stride in the 1990s. Aharon Zubeida, the Israeli army education officer in the Golan from the mid-1970s until 1990, argued that Israeli policy toward the Golan had failed and advocated a return to a strategy of building strong relations with the traditional leadership and intervening in hamula (clan) relations. Following these recommendations, the authorities reinstated the program whereby they chose students to study in Syria. Most of those selected have come from traditional leaders’ families. The application process to study in Syria has been used to break the isolation imposed on collaborators who have staffed the local councils since 1967: Applicants must pass an interview with the heads of the local councils, and any member of the student’s family active against the occupation must promise to stop such activities.

Israeli authorities seem reluctant to accept the post-strike emergence of a generation of young, secular political leaders raised under the occupation. While there is still deep respect for the traditional leadership, especially those with a strong record of resistance to the occupation, younger leaders have come to rival them when it comes to issues that relate to the wellbeing of the community. Among all generations, feelings of Syrian Arab national identity run strong.

Education and the Community

Before 1981, the only independent organizations were sports clubs. In the aftermath of the strike, these clubs were used for political meetings and to host visiting solidarity groups. The strike inspired people to express themselves politically, and the sports clubs were the perfect venue. Male and female membership increased dramatically after the strike.

In 1983, university graduates and students established the Golan Academic Association (GAA) to serve as a center of community development and political activity. The GAA soon became the leading organization in the Golan, and began to accept non-academic members. The GAA organized weekly political and educational programs, sponsoring local and guest lecturers from the other occupied territories and from inside Israel. It also provided courses not available in the schools, such as art, drama and foreign languages, tutored high school students for their final exams and the bagrut (baccalaureate), and sponsored book exhibits and cultural events.

The GAA established kindergartens in three villages. This widely popular innovation demonstrated both the Israeli failure to provide for a range of child development needs and the abilities of local organizations to compensate. The authorities responded by pressuring people who rented their buildings for the kindergartens to cancel the leases. One year later, the Israeli-appointed local councils established competing kindergartens in the same three villages, and sued the landlords of the GAA kindergartens for violating building codes. In 1990, two of the GAA kindergartens were forced to close down. Shortly afterward the local councils closed their own kindergartens, proving that they had existed solely to compete with those of the GAA.

In 1984, the first women’s organization, the Women’s Committee in the Golan (WCG), was established. The WCG also established kindergartens in three villages, two of which were closed down two years later by the Israeli authorities after the local councils complained. The third unified with the remaining GAA kindergarten in 1989.

Local organizations cooperated with one another to accomplish more ambitious projects. The biggest was a summer camp held every year from 1985 to 1990, with a yearly average attendance of 400 children between the ages of 6 and 15. The main purpose of the summer camp was to compensate for the weaknesses of the school system, and to emphasize their Arab heritage and Syrian identity. Another was to provide children with creative outlets otherwise lacking in their lives. As with the kindergartens, the Israeli authorities responded by pressuring the organizers and establishing alternative summer camps, but only a handful of children attended, most from collaborator families.

Widespread participation in and support for the summer camp — the largest program of its kind in any of the Israeli-occupied territories — demonstrated both the need for and the receptivity to such activities. When Israeli police came in 1988 to arrest its organizers, more than 1,000 people rallied to defend the camp. The large number of children involved illustrates the need for such a program, but due to insufficient funds the summer camps have been discontinued.

In general, activities sponsored by the local organizations have been scaled back, largely because activities financed by community donations lacked the financial security necessary for longer-term planning. Activities relied entirely on volunteer labor and local organizations failed to attract sufficient numbers of new volunteers. Lastly, the organizations were constantly pressured by the authorities.

The last few years have seen a resurgence of local organizing. A reinvigorated GAA introduced a training program for high-school students and graduates in secretarial skills, music, art and languages. The Arab Association for Development (AAD) was established in 1991, partly in response to the crisis facing other organizations. This is the first registered NGO in the Golan, a status which allows for fundraising beyond the community. In addition to establishing the first local health center and an agricultural laboratory, the AAD sponsored the first independent local survey of the population in 1993, and has conducted research projects on land confiscation, building and development, the structure of the local labor force and prisoners. Plans to open a cultural center are underway.

Education, Economics and the Future

As of today, more than 200 Golan students have graduated from Israeli universities, including more than 50 women; approximately 100 are currently enrolled. For Golani university graduates, finding a job in their field represents a significant problem. The local market is small, and the community does not control its economy. Like other non-Jews competing for jobs in the Israeli market, they suffer from endemic and institutionalized discrimination. As a result, approximately 60 percent of university graduates from the Golan do not work in their area of expertise; a majority work in construction or agriculture. [17]

University graduates enjoyed success in the early years of the occupation and contributed to political life, inspiring later generations to pursue higher education. But rising unemployment in the last few years has affected the attitudes of the younger generations toward education. As a result, there has been a severe decline in the number choosing to continue on to universities.

The negotiations between the Israeli and Syrian governments that began with Madrid in 1991 have also affected attitudes. People feel a mixture of hope and uncertainty about their future. The uncertainty is reflected in all aspects of community life. Many high-school graduates are choosing not to apply to Israeli universities, in the hope that the Golan will be returned to Syria soon. Damascus University will serve them better in the post-occupation world of the Syrian job market and will cost much less. Most people have stopped investing in general, including in education. For now, they are saving their resources, waiting to see what the future will bring.


[1] See Hassan Abu Libdeh, Lisa Hajjar, Bashar Tarabieh and Taiseer Maray, A Survey of the Syrian Population in the Occupied Golan Heights: Demography and Health (Majdal Shams: Arab Association for Development, 1994), p. 94.
[2] On the age structure in the Golan, see ibid., pp. 46-48. Employees in the school system represent approximately 8 percent of the total labor force. Ibid., pp. 66-67.
[3] See Salman Fakhr al-Din, “The Historical and Political Aspects,” in Lisa Hajjar, ed., Twenty- five Years of Israeli Occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights (Jerusalem: Arab Association For Development, 1993); Statistical Abstract of Israel, 1968 (Jerusalem: Central Bureau of Statistics, 1968), p. 593. The six Syrian villages that remained inhabited were: Majdal Shams, Mas‘ada, Buqatha, ‘Ayn Qinya, Ghajar and Suhayta. In 1969, the residents of Suhayta were forced by the Israeli military to relocate to Mas‘ada and Buqatha and the village was destroyed to make way for an Israeli military base.
[4] For critical discussions of Israel’s policies toward the Druze inside Israel, see Usama Halabi, The Druze in Israel: Prom Sect to Nation (Jerusalem: Golan Academic Association, 1989) [Arabic] ; Lisa Hajjar, “Who Is a Druze?” News from Within (March 1993); Jonathan Oppenheimer, “The Druze in Israel as Arabs and Non-Arabs: Manipulation of Categories of Identity in a Non-Civil State,” in Alex Weingrod, ed., Studies in Israeli Ethnicity: After the Ingathering (New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1985).
[5] From the beginning of the occupation, Israel confiscated lands, arrested people, and imposed curfews and other forms of collective punishment. All Syrian administrative apparatuses were replaced by Israeli ones. This was a marked difference to the approach taken in the West Bank and Gaza, where Jordanian and Egyptian laws, curriculum and so on continued to be upheld within the context of military occupation.
[6] Interviews with ‘Arif Shams, Buqatha, April 1992; Majid Abu Jabal, Majdal Shams, March 1992; Fawzat Abu Shibli, Buqatha, April 1992.
[7] See Felicia Langer, With My Own Eyes (London: Ithaca Press, 1975), pp. 71-74.
[8] Ibid.
[9] After the capture of Sinai, Israel started building defense structures along the ceasefire line with Egypt. Like the Druze of Israel, residents of the Golan were allowed to work on these sites. Some of those workers, it was later discovered, provided Syrian and Egyptian intelligence with accurate maps of the Israeli military sites on the Suez Canal which enabled the Egyptian army to cross the Suez Canal in 1973. See Jerusalem Post, February 2, 4, 7, 9, 12, 14 and 20, and March 1, 1973.
[10] Local Councils were established in 1968, but the Israeli authorities have never been able to find more than a few people willing to serve in them.
[11] There were more than 100 arrests throughout the period for offenses such as hiding infiltrators and defusing landmines. The most common offense was hanging the Syrian flag from official buildings, including schools. See David Pike, “The Druze of the Golan Heights Under Israeli Occupation, 1967-1986,” unpublished manuscript, Manchester University, 1986, p. 71.
[12] For more about the economic situation in the Golan during the period of occupation, see Hayel Abu Jabal, “The Case of Agriculture,” in Hajjar, Twenty-five Years.
[13] The creation of this new sector came as a result of the recommendation of a government committee established in 1974 in response to the Palestinian Druze demonstration protesting compulsory conscription into the military and the government’s manipulation of Druze religious identity for political purposes. The authorities interpreted this event as a sign of an “identity crisis.” In 1975, a Druze education committee was established to “solve” the crisis, in part through education. See Halabi, The Druze in Israel.
[14] Jerusalem Post, December 10, 1981.
[15] Other measures imposed on those who refused to apply for citizenship included refusal to grant driving permits or to renew expired driving licenses. No new building permits were issued. Jerusalem Post, March 13, June 29 and December 4, 1981.
[16] Before the strike in 1981, for example, “there were 277 teachers. Of these, nine had BAs, four had some university training, 26 had passed teaching qualification courses but did not have a BA, 110 had some limited training for teaching, and while Israeli authorities would consider them qualified to teach, this training was inadequate. There were 68 who had no training of any kind.” Hammood Maray, “The Case of Education,” in Hajjar, Twenty-five Years, p. 45. The issue of teachers’ qualifications worsened in the period after the strike.
[17] This data is based on an unpublished survey conducted among university graduates by the AAD in the summer of 1993.

How to cite this article:

Bashar Tarabieh "Education, Control and Resistance in the Golan Heights," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).

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