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The Anti-Assad Campaign in the Occupied Golan Heights, 2011-2012: Reimagining Syrian Nationalism in a Contested Borderland

Le mouvement contre Assad dans le Golan occupé (2011-2012) : La redéfinition du nationalisme syrien dans une zone frontalière contestée
Julian Cole Phillips


Depuis 1967, Israël et la Syrie revendiquent le Golan, 1250 km2 de territoires situés en bordure de la frontière internationale entre les deux pays. Les résidents arabes de cette zone frontalière ont été pris dans un champ de contestation entre les deux pays. Israël et la Syrie, en collaboration avec leurs alliés respectifs au sein de la communauté druze, ont essayé d’inculquer des sentiments nationaux dans la population à travers un ensemble de projets. Cela a mené à l’instrumentalisation, de part et d’autre, de divers discours et pratiques visant à propager le nationalisme syrien ou israélien. Pendant les années 2011 et 2012, un petit groupe de résidents arabes du Golan ont organisé un mouvement politique d’opposition au président syrien Bashār al-Assad. Ce mouvement représente une initiative sans précédent pour établir une autre forme de nationalisme syrien dans le Golan, un nationalisme qui contraste également avec le patriotisme de l’Etat israélien et l’Etat syrien.

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1On 20 July 2012, two crowds of demonstrators met in a public square in Majdal Shams, a bustling town in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The two sides carried rival flags that were nearly identical: two green stars upon a background of red, white, and black bars; three red stars upon a background of green, white, and black bars. Protestors traded chants that followed the same poetic formulas, matching “Only God, Syria, and Bashār” with “Only God, Syria, and Freedom” (“allah, sūriā, bashār wa bas”; “allah, sūriā, ḥuriyya, wa bas”). One crowd sang Syria’s national anthem, “Ḥumāt al-Diyār”; the second crowd waved a sign that read “Syria Above All” (sūrīa fawq al-jamī’). Underneath a bronze statue of Sulṭān al-Aṭrash—a leader of the 1925 revolt against French Mandate rule in Syria, and a nationalist icon—the two crowds collided with violence. For nearly 90 minutes, protestors wrestled their opponents and flung makeshift projectiles before withdrawing from the square.

2This article contends that the street fight in Majdal Shams carried two distinct meanings. On a superficial level, the incident was a minor sortie in the Syrian Civil War: civilian supporters and opponents of the regime of Bashār al-Assad enacted their political differences through standards, chants, and violent conflict. In the unique context of the Golan Heights, however, the street fight constituted a clash between two rival forms of national consciousness: each crowd endeavored to represent the local community, and each strove to perform that community’s belonging to the Syrian nation. This article analyzes the nationalist project embedded in an anti-Assad campaign that local activists conducted in the Golan Heights in 2011 and 2012, which precipitated the street fight in Majdal Shams. It seeks to elucidate the reasons that this campaign endeavored to redefine Syrian patriotism, and simultaneously to bind the Golan Heights to a re-imagined Syrian national community. The article contends that, prior to 2011, a 45-year history of rival Israeli and Syrian state attempts to inculcate national consciousness in the contested borderland territory rendered it impossible for local activists to publically express their views on the Syrian regime without implicitly endorsing either Israeli or Syrian nationalism. Although many residents held ambivalent—if not negative—views of the Assad regime, the territory contained no discursive space in which they could criticize the Syrian state without expressing indirect support for Israeli rule. In 2011, however, the violent repression of anti-regime demonstrations in Syria spurred a small group of residents to publically express their criticism of Bashār al-Assad. In order to univocally oppose the sitting president and reject Israeli national consciousness, these activists were compelled to craft a new nationalist discourse, and identify themselves with an alternative definition of Syrian patriotism that was decoupled from the Assad-ruled state.

  • 1 Research for this article was funded by the Jewish Studies Fund and the Dean’s Award for Summer Res (...)

3Majdal Shams is the nexus of a community of 20,000 Syrian citizens and their descendants, living in five towns that have been isolated from Syria and governed by Israel since 1967. The first section of the article reviews selected processes through which the Israeli and Syrian states (in collaboration with local allies) have endeavored to incorporate Majdal Shams and the surrounding towns into their respective national communities. The processes discussed include the state-directed incorporation of the contested territory into Israel’s economic and public education systems, and Syrian state facilitation of the passage of people and information between the Golan Heights and Syrian-controlled territory. The second section of the article analyzes the discourses and practices that constituted the anti-Assad campaign organized in 2011 and 2012. This section highlights the interlinked processes through which activists articulated an alternative Syrian national consciousness that was tailored to the peculiar situation of the Golan Heights, while consciously seeking to bind themselves to a broader community of Syrian nationalists who opposed the Assad regime1.

Competing Projects to Inculcate Israeli and Syrian National Consciousness in the Golan Heights, 1967-2012

  • 2 A description of the precise process by which civilians were exiled from the Golan Heights, or an e (...)

4During the 1967 war between Israel and Syria, the Israeli army occupied 1,250 square kilometers of Syrian territory atop the Golan Heights, a plateau adjacent to the Israeli-Syrian border (Muslih, 1993, p. 621). Prior to the war, this swath of territory had housed approximately 130,000 individuals, hailing from diverse ethnic and confessional backgrounds, in 139 towns and villages (Davis, 1983, p. 4). During and immediately after the conflict all but 6,396 of these residents fled or were forced to evacuate the region for Syrian-controlled territory (ibid, p. 5). The vast majority of these remaining Syrian residents were adherents of the tawaḥīd (Druze) sect, a medieval offshoot of Shi’a Islam, and were concentrated in five villages in the far north of the occupied territory (‘Aīn Qinīa, Buq’āthā, Ghajar, Majdal Shams, and Mas’ada).2 In 1975, the Israeli army erected a series of fortifications along the ceasefire line that separated the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syrian-controlled territory—a de facto border that imposed a near-total prohibition on the passage of goods and people between this small population and the remainder of Syria (Mara’i and Halabi, 1992, p. 82). The war and its aftermath transformed the territory from a populous region integral to the Syrian nation-state into a sparsely populated borderland. In a parallel process, the Druze population of the Golan Heights—previously incorporated into a range of state, economic, and social networks that linked Syrians across confessional boundaries—was reconstituted as an isolated minority community on the fringes of the nation-state.

5In the four decades after the 1967 war, both the Israeli and the Syrian states endeavored to reverse the isolation of this community by enacting policies and projects that incorporated the population into their respective nation-states. Although neither state explicitly identified the inculcation of national identity as its primary goal of its activities in the contested territory, these endeavors served to inculcate local residents with sentiments of national belonging to either Israel or Syria. From the south, the Israeli state inserted a range of institutions and networks into the occupied territory, replicating the processes that had incorporated the Golan Heights into Syria prior to 1967. From the north, the Syrian state facilitated—and endowed with new meanings—a variety of programs that conveyed people and information across the fortified ceasefire line. Out of an array of state-sponsored links between the community and the nation, this section will discuss four selected projects and processes: the extension of the Israeli public education system to Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages, the incorporation of working-age men and women from this population into Israeli labor markets, a state scholarship program that sponsored the enrollment of young men and women from the Golan Heights at the University of Damascus, and the practice of shouting across the ceasefire line that separates Israeli-occupied territory from the remainder of Syria. These four examples demonstrate the rival endeavors of both the Israeli and Syrian states to incorporate the population of this contested borderland into their respective national communities.

Israeli Initiatives: Public Education and Economic Incorporation

6Public education was the first institution that the Israeli state extended to Majdal Shams. In the immediate wake of the occupation of the Golan Heights, the Israeli army assigned an officer to administer the public primary school that the Syrian state had operated in Majdal Shams, and opened a new secondary school in the nearby town of Mas’ada, replacing a regional secondary school that had been located in the provincial capital of Qunaiṭra (Tarabieh, 1995, p. 44). The state opened four additional primary schools and three junior-high schools during the 1970s and 1980s, and established an additional secondary school in 2000 (Shamai, 1990, p. 453; Tarabieh, 2000, p. 7). The size of this education system dwarfed that of other Israeli state institutions (civil government, healthcare, postal services, police) that established a presence in the community after 1967, and the education system provides the clearest example of direct state involvement in the incorporation of Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages into the Israeli nation-state.

7The educators who directed the network of schools serving the five villages after 1967 replaced the Syrian curriculum that had been in use in Majdal Shams and Qunaiṭra with Israeli-drafted Arabic language curricula. Between 1967 and 1976, local students studied a curriculum that had been designed for non-Jews who had become Israeli citizens after 1948, a category that encompassed Arabic-speaking Christian, Druze, and Muslim communities. In 1976, however, the Israeli Ministry of Education developed a new curriculum that was specifically tailored for Druze students, both Syrian citizens in the Golan Heights and Israeli citizens in the country’s Galilee region (Tarabieh, 1995, p. 44). According to historian Kais Firro, the Ministry of Education developed this curriculum as a riposte to the activism of a Galilee-based organization called the Druze Initiative Committee, which endeavored to “reverse the process of separating the Druzes from the other Arabs” (Firro, 2001, p. 49). (For more on the state practice of distinguishing adherents of tawaḥīd from other Arabic-speaking communities, see footnote 2, above.) The new curriculum institutionalized a state-conceived division between Druze students and their Christian and Muslim peers and, in the evaluation of sociologist Shmuel Shamai, was designed to inculcate students with “a sense of belonging and loyalty to the state of Israel” (Shamai, 1990, p. 458). In replacing the Syrian state curriculum in Majdal Shams with curricula designed for Druze citizens of Israel, Israeli officials seem to have been motivated by two, interlinked aims. Firstly, they sought to reconstitute Druze religious identity as a metonym for political affiliation and ethnicity—thereby discouraging identification with Syria, pan-Arab ethnicity, or Arab-Palestinian political movements in Israel. Secondly, they endeavored to inculcate students with feelings of belonging to the Israeli nation-state. In foregrounding Druze ethnicity and Israeli nationality above other potential valences for students’ identities, this curriculum competed directly with rival processes that worked to inculcate Syrian national consciousness.

  • 3 My thanks to Dr. Fakher Eldin for sharing with me the text of this lecture, as well as other unpubl (...)

8Like the public education system, Israeli agricultural policies played a crucial (if indirect) role in shaping the incorporation of the borderland community into the nation-state. Beginning in the 1970s, state restrictions on access to land and water in the Golan Heights drastically altered labor patterns in Majdal Shams, a process that historian Munir Fakher Eldin labels “large scale proletariatization” (Fakher Eldin, 2012, n.p.).3 When Israeli citizens established agricultural settlements in depopulated Syrian territory after 1967, the state diverted water sources exploited by Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages to supply nearby Israeli farmers. In an unequal allocation, Israeli farmers received up to 400% more water per dunum of farmland than farmers in Majdal Shams (Moloney, 2009, p. 73). In additional to restricting local farmers’ access to water, Israeli authorities confiscated large swaths of private agricultural land and communal grazing areas from the community, largely to build military installations and additional civilian settlements. The land confiscations reduced the production capabilities of some local fruit growers by as much as 50%, and rendered dairy and meat producers unable to maintain herds that had depended on communal grazing lands (Al-Marsad, 2010, p. 13; Al-Marsad, 2005, p. 13). Local residents who had previously supported themselves in agriculture were compelled to seek alternative forms of low-skilled employment outside the community, particularly in Israel’s Galilee region or in Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights (Fakher Eldin, 2012, n.p.; Fakher Eldin, 2011, n.p.). The state’s reduction of the community’s landholdings, therefore, compelled workers to leave their natal community in the contested Israeli-Syrian borderland, and travel towards the Israeli center.

9For displaced laborers from Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages, this process of “proletariatization” would have generated contradictory sentiments of alienation and belonging within the Israeli nation-state. In the orchards and fields of the Golan Heights, residents worked alongside members of the same natal community. In Israeli towns and villages, in contrast, these laborers interacted with Israeli citizens from a variety of backgrounds. These interactions would have highlighted the substantial divide between the laborers’ home community and mainstream Israeli society. The laborers’ resultant feelings of alienation, would, however, have been coupled with reminders that they were following a parallel trajectory to that of their Israeli coworkers. In an analysis of civil servants in colonial Latin America—but equally applicable here—Benedict Anderson compares encounters between bureaucrats to gatherings of pilgrims from far-flung countries. Much as pilgrimages have forged imagined spiritual communities encompassing individuals of diverse origins, Anderson argues, colonial-era civil servants felt sentiments of “connectedness” towards “traveling companions” on overlapping career paths (Anderson, 2006, pp. 53-57). Despite the religious, ethnic, and linguistic differences between the Syrians and their Israeli interlocutors, the two groups encountered one another on a shared economic “pilgrimage,” a process that Anderson identifies as a catalyst of national consciousness.

Syrian Initiatives: Mediating the Movement of People and Information

10Unlike Israeli authorities, the Syrian state did not possess the power to control public school curricula, or shape economic networks, in the post-1967 Golan Heights borderland. Rather, in order to maintain ties with the isolated population of Syrian citizens living in and around Majdal Shams, the state facilitated an assemblage of practices and programs that conveyed information and people between the occupied Golan Heights and territory that remained under Syrian control. It bears special mention that the Syrian state did not initiate the practices of communication and movement across the fortified ceasefire line. At the time that the de facto border was concretized, as many as 50% of the residents of Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages were separated from members of their immediate families who resided elsewhere in Syria, and these residents began to shout (or sneak) across the newly-constructed fortifications in order to maintain their kinship networks (Ford, 1992, p. 7). As years and decades passed, however, informal practices of shouting or smuggling morphed into bureaucratic programs in which the Syrian state played a central role. This state involvement reconstituted the movement of people and information across the ceasefire line into practices that knit residents of the Golan Heights into the Syrian body politic, and rendered the physical space of the ceasefire line a crucible of Syrian national consciousness.

11With the military occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967 and the fortification of the ceasefire line in 1975, interpersonal communication between Majdal Shams and the remainder of Syria was subjected to severe restrictions. Because Israel and Syria remained in a state of cold war after the conclusion of armed warfare in 1974, direct telephone lines or mail services were not established to link the two states. From 1967 until the late 1990s (when the Golan Heights first received access to cellular telephone and internet service) communication between Israeli- and Syrian-controlled territories passed through third countries (Russell, 2010, p. 58). Such forms of communication were prohibitively expensive for many families (in 1995, telephone calls between Majdal Shams and Damascus cost up to two U.S. dollars per minute [Ibrahim, 1995, p. A-4]). Consequently, the community developed a unique method of communication across the de facto border. Carrying binoculars and handheld megaphones, Syrians began to gather on a small hill overlooking Majdal Shams, on the eastern edge of the fortified ceasefire line. During clear weather, they were able to shout audibly to the town, and hold lengthy conversations with friends and relatives residing in Israeli-occupied territory. Residents dubbed the hill facing Majdal Shams “talat al-ṣurākh” (hill of shouting) and the 200 meter-wide minefield that separated the two sites “wādī al-damū’” (valley of tears).

12Remaining in constant use from the 1970s until the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the talat al-ṣurākh expanded from a quotidian method of interpersonal communication to a communal ritual that forged ties between Majdal Shams and the Syrian nation-state. Individuals who lived in close proximity to the ceasefire line (including residents of the Druze community in Ḥaḍar, fewer than five kilometers east of Majdal Shams) were able to visit the talat al-ṣurākh on a regular basis (Smith, 1975, p. 82). Those who lived elsewhere in Syria often took advantage of state holidays to travel to the ceasefire line, shouting to relatives and friends on a few occasions each year. Under the constant gaze of neighbors, journalists, United Nations peacekeepers, and the Israeli and Syrian forces stationed along the ceasefire line, residents of Majdal Shams chose their words carefully before shouting them at the talat al-ṣurākh. Members of the community who had come to support Israeli rule avoided political speech, while avowed Syrian nationalists adopted the talat al-ṣurākh as a soapbox. Meetings between relatives that had been scheduled to coincide with state holidays, when government employees and other Syrians did not work, evolved into mass ceremonies, infused with nationalist sentiment. The Syrian state constructed a sheltered platform atop the talat al-ṣurākh, festooned with the national flag and images of the president, to accommodate large groups; residents of Majdal Shams purchased a sound system and nationalist banners to improve communication across the wādī al-damū’. As the act of shouting across the ceasefire line became increasingly formal, private communication was reconstituted as a catalyst of Syrian national consciousness in the Golan Heights.

13The talat al-ṣurākh reconstituted quotidian conversations as powerful invocations of communal suffering. During the 1990s, foreign journalists who traveled to the site documented dialogues about remarkably banal topics, ranging from family pets to personal finances (Hachem, 1994, p. 1-A; Jacobs, 1991, n.p.). When multiple families gathered in Majdal Shams to shout across the ceasefire line, however, quotidian banter blended into “an incomprehensible cacophony of anguished messages” (Ibrahim, 1995, p. A-4). By gathering in a public space, residents of the Golan Heights and their relatives in Syria forged their discrete conversations into a communal performance, demonstrating the shared experience of family division and the endurance of kinship ties across the ceasefire line.

14On significant occasions, such as commemorations of births and deaths, families held ritualized gatherings that could invoke both kinship and national ties. In 1993, for example, a divided family gathered at the talat al-ṣurākh to mourn the death of an elderly resident of the Golan Heights (identified with the teknonym “Abu Rabeah”). Their exchange embedded kin connections across the ceasefire line in a broader network of relations between the Syrian state and residents of the Golan Heights.

Brother-in-law of the deceased, Syria: “The daughter of men and the sister of men. May God console us by keeping you safe, you, and everybody. My sister Um-Rabeah, the dead is alive. Abu-Rabeah is dear to all of us. The kindness of Abu-Rabeah cannot be replaced, but by patience. There is no help or strength but by God. God will compensate you with patience.”

Widow, Majdal Shams: “By the glory of God, I consider myself the daughter of every old man in this land, the daughter of every old woman in this land, and I consider myself the sister of every young woman who stands beside me. I will pray to God to help me carry and protect the fidelity. Carrying and protecting the fidelity doesn't mean bringing up my children. It means cultivating in them all the good and patriotic characteristics of their father, the noble, the generous, the pure, the helpful. God have mercy upon him, and keep him a symbol and treasure to me, and to this blessed country.”

Relative 1, Syria: “And thus our struggling president, Comrade Ḥāfiẓ al-Assad, said that Golan is the heart of Syria, and this heart will always throb and be protected by the help of these turbans, and these heroic men who sacrifice for the sake of their Syrian nationalism, identity, their land, their honor, and their life.”

Relative 2, Syria: “Oh, my sister, Um-Rabeah. Everybody is thinking about you, our relatives, neighbors and friends. They have asked us to convey their condolences to you. Also, all your sisters in love, here, convey their deep condolences. God bless you, and keep you for the sake of your children, and the family, and for the people of Golan, who will always raise their heads with pride” (Lyden, 1993, n.p.).

15During a ritualized shouting of condolences, the family praised the deceased for “kindness” towards his relatives and “patriotic characteristics” in relation to the Syrian state—describing him as a “symbol and treasure” to both his family and his nation. One relative identified Abu Rabeah with “heroic men,” feted by then-president Ḥāfiẓ al-Assad for “sacrifice for the sake of their Syrian nationalism.” The deceased’s widow, Um Rabeah, pledged to honor her husband by working to preserve her home community’s “fidelity” towards the Syrian nation-state. This ceremony at the talat al-ṣurākh reconstituted a private mourning ritual as a public demonstration of Syrian national consciousness, shared with observers on both sides of the ceasefire line.

16Ritualistic meetings between relatives served as the model for nationalist ceremonies at the talat al-ṣurākh, held on significant dates, including the annual commemoration of the community’s decision to reject Israeli citizenship (14 February; see below). These ceremonies often featured prominent politicians and musicians, and drew large crowds on both sides of the ceasefire line. Attendees were unable to clearly identify individuals within the crowd gathered on the opposite side of the fortifications, but could see enormous Syrian flags and images of the sitting president, displayed at both sites. Rather than maintaining kinship ties within families, these events were designed to preserve the links between the Syrian population in Israeli-occupied territory and the broader Syrian national community.

17On 17 April 2008, for example, an estimated 4,000 spectators gathered in Majdal Shams and on the talat al-ṣurākh for an annual commemoration of ‘id al-jalāʾ, the 1946 withdrawal of French Mandate forces from Syria. At the opening of the ceremony, the two crowds listened to speeches delivered by residents of the Golan Heights, who called for an Israeli withdrawal (jalāʾ) from the contested territory. Following the speeches, Syrian musician Samiḥ Shuqair performed a concert atop the talat al-ṣurākh that was audible to the crowd gathered in Majdal Shams (Asser, 2008, n.p). Shuqair—who had been born in the Golan Heights, but had been forcibly displaced into Syrian-controlled territory during the 1967 war—was known for composing songs that discussed his natal region. The event utilized the rituals of kinship-based shouting to promote Syrian national consciousness, re-inscribing the talat al-ṣurākh as a symbol of the local population’s incorporation into a broader Syrian national community.

  • 4 The ICRC crossing program operated fitfully and was subject to an evolving body of restrictions. Du (...)
  • 5 Statistics of the number of individuals who crossed the ceasefire line through an ICRC program were (...)

18Like the practice of shouting at the talat al-ṣurākh, formal programs that conveyed civilians across the ceasefire line were initially designed to maintain pre-1967 kinship networks, but gradually acquired new functions and broader significance. The program of civilian crossings between Israeli-occupied territory and the remainder of Syria was brokered by the tracing department of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which facilitates the reunion of conflict-divided families. Through negotiations with Israeli and Syrian authorities between 1967 and 2012, the ICRC arranged for more than 3,000 individuals to cross the fortified ceasefire line for five designated purposes: reunification with relatives, family or medical emergency, university enrollment in Syria, marriage, and religious pilgrimage.4 This section analyzes the program that conveyed nearly 1,500 students from Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages to enroll at the University of Damascus. College students did not constitute the majority—or even the largest single category—of individuals who crossed the ceasefire line with the assistance of the ICRC.5 But, because of the extended period that they spent in Damascus, and the close involvement of the state in facilitating their university enrollment, these students played the most substantial role in the cultivation of Syrian national consciousness in their home community.

  • 6 For a profile of two students from Majdal Shams during a year studying at the University of Damascu (...)

19Students received approval to cross the ceasefire line in two periods, 1976-1981 (65 students) and 1994-2012 (1,419 students). Following an application process, these students generally received approval to cross the ceasefire line twice annually, at the opening and close of the academic year. The Syrian state awarded successful applicants full-tuition scholarships for the duration of their enrollment, and granted them waivers of departmental entrance examinations, permitting beneficiaries to enter competitive academic programs (Tarabieh, 1995, p. 44; Bakker and Gould, 2010, n.p.). These students, who had been raised under Israeli rule, spent formative years of their lives in Syria, and their experiences exerted significant influence on their natal community in the Golan Heights.6

20The University of Damascus crossing program engendered Syrian national consciousness in the Golan Heights, both among the nearly 1,500 students who participated, and in their home community more broadly. Unlike their peers who enrolled in Israeli universities, students who traveled from Majdal Shams to Damascus would have immediately recognized considerable cultural and linguistic commonalities with their new classmates, who had been raised in the Syrian nation-state. In Anderson’s formulation, students from both Israeli- and Syrian-ruled territory would have identified each other as “pilgrims” who had embarked on a “journey” towards shared educational and career goals. In directing their “pilgrimage” through the University of Damascus, students from the Golan Heights re-inscribed their Israeli education as preparation for advanced study in Syria, rather than for a career in Israel.

21The most important manner in which the student crossing program generated national consciousness in Majdal Shams, however, was its engendering of feelings of mutual obligation between the community and the Syrian state. In awarding full scholarships to local students, and permitting them to enroll in programs of their choosing, the state provided local families with substantial opportunities for economic and social mobility. Numerous students were able to earn degrees in prestigious and lucrative fields, including dentistry, engineering, medicine, and pharmacy. In providing families with such direct and substantial largesse, the Syrian state demonstrated continued investment in the welfare of Syrians living in Israeli-occupied territory. Residents of Majdal Shams felt gratitude towards the state, and associated sentiments of belonging to a national community of citizens, living under the benevolent rule of the regime.

22It is impossible to quantify the degree to which, under the influence of these and other processes, residents of the Golan Heights came to identify themselves as members of either an Israeli or a Syrian national community. The only (albeit partial and informal) tabulation of such sentiments was conducted in 1980, when a change to Israel’s citizenship laws rendered residents of Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship. In response to this legal reform, more than 6,000 residents (approximately half the then-population of the five villages) gathered for a mass meeting in Majdal Shams. A majority of attendees at this meeting endorsed a written manifesto that affirmed sentiments of Syrian nationalism, expressed opposition to the extension of Israeli citizenship to the community, and threatened to socially ostracize individuals who adopted Israeli citizenship. When the Israeli state, in a second legal reform the following year, sought to unilaterally extend citizenship to the entire local population, the community staged a 19-week general strike that compelled the state to abandon the measure. Residents remained eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship; those who did not apply were issued Israeli identity cards with the qualifier “Nationality: Undefined” (Mara’i and Halabi 1992, pp. 83-84). A minority of residents (approximately 10%) chose to become Israeli citizens, and their neighbors imposed a punishing social and economic boycott that likely deterred others from normalizing their residence in Israel. Because of this enforced conformity, it is impossible to quantify the spread of Israeli national consciousness within the community, or analyze the particularities of this consciousness. The ongoing enforcement of the boycott on Israeli citizens within the community, however, suggests that pro-Syrian segments of the population have continued to view Israeli national identity as a potent force, and fear that growing numbers of residents have been inculcated with sentiments of belonging to the Israeli nation-state. Although exponents of Syrian patriotism are far more audible than their Israeli-aligned neighbors, it seems clear that Israeli and Syrian national consciousnesses compete for support within the borderland population.

Reimagining Syrian Nationalism in an Anti-Regime Political Campaign, 2011-2012

23Throughout more than four decades of Israeli rule, most residents of Majdal Shams refrained from public criticism of the Syrian state, for two reasons. Until the 1990s—when the ICRC arranged for large numbers of residents to cross the ceasefire line, and the Golan Heights received access to Internet service—the community was largely unable to access firsthand accounts of life in Syria. The only newspapers available in the Golan Heights were Israeli and Palestinian publications that could not send reporters to Syria; relatives and friends living in Syrian-controlled territory could not freely discuss the country’s authoritarian government at the talat al-ṣurākh (Schick, 1979, p. 128). Although residents began to hear critical perspectives on the Syrian state in the late 1990s, the occupied Golan Heights contained no discursive space in which individuals could simultaneously condemn the Assad regime and affirm their belonging to the Syrian national community. The local community’s public discourse—notably at the talat al-ṣurākh—utilized fervent support for the regime as a metonym for Syrian patriotism and resistance to Israeli occupation. In the absence of a robust political opposition in Syria, rejection of the Assad regime would have implied an endorsement of the Israeli state, the only other political body that possessed both the desire and the means to govern the Golan Heights. Forced to chose one of two rival bundles of political ideas—support for the Assad regime and continued belonging to the Syrian national community; opposition to the Assad regime and support for gradual incorporation into Israel—most Syrian-identified residents of Majdal Shams chose not to publically condemn the regime.

  • 7 My thanks to anti-regime activists in Majdal Shams, who allowed me to attend organizing meetings an (...)

24On 15 March 2011, anti-government protests began in the Syrian city of Dara’ā, less than 40 kilometers east of the Golan Heights. The protests provided a vocabulary and a political movement in which Syrian residents of Israeli-occupied territory could criticize the Assad regime without undermining their claims to Syrian national identity. Less than two weeks after the outbreak of protests, a small group of local residents assembled in Majdal Shams, and composed a manifesto that declared support for the protestors in Dara’ā and other cities. The manifesto marked the beginning of a multi-year (if sporadic) campaign, in which a loose-knit coalition of activists in the Golan Heights organized street protests, sprayed graffiti, and created digital content that called for a popular overthrow of the Assad regime.7 This campaign received relatively little support from the local community. Most local supporters of Israeli rule refrained from publically commenting on the conflict unfolding east of the ceasefire line, while residents who advocated the return of Syrian control in the Golan Heights organized rallies in support of the embattled regime, drawing larger numbers of demonstrators than their anti-Assad neighbors. The campaign’s significance, however, should not only be measured by the degree to which it built local opposition to Bashār al-Assad. In order to distinguish their opposition to the Assad regime from support for continued Israeli rule of their borderland community, activists worked to decouple Syrian patriotism from support for the regime. In this process, they re-imagined Syrian national consciousness, developing a novel valence of national identity for residents of the Golan Heights.

  • 8 At the time of publication, footage of this incident was available on YouTube at the following link (...)

25The importance of the demonstration (and simultaneous re-imagination) of Syrian patriotism by the anti-regime campaign was underscored by the local reaction to the activists’ second rally, staged in Majdal Shams on 23 December 2011. Amateur footage of the event shows a group of demonstrators marching through the town, when a small group of local men (some armed with sticks) obstruct their path.8 In an interview conducted seven months after the incident, one of the demonstrators recalled that these men had accused the activists of “helping Israel and America against Syria.” Another local opponent of the Assad regime, who had not attended the controversial rally, cited the perspective of some segments of the population: “because we are under occupation… Israel could use [our speech] for its interests.” In order to counter the view that public opposition to Assad aided the Israeli state in its ongoing efforts to secure its control of the Golan Heights borderland—including by wooing the loyalty of borderland residents—anti-regime activists designed their campaign to knit the five villages into a broader Syrian national community. They advanced this goal through three discursive processes. Firstly, they identified local sentiments of Syrian patriotism as the primary engine of opposition to the regime in the Golan Heights. Secondly, they contended that the regime’s overthrow was a necessary precursor to a full Israeli withdrawal from the territory, and the resumption of Syrian control. Finally, the campaign’s organizers used the Internet to collaborate closely with fellow activists on the far side of the ceasefire line, using joint political action to forge a new community of Syrians on the basis of their shared opposition to Bashār al-Assad. Through these three processes, the 2011-2012 anti-regime campaign sought to cultivate, and simultaneously inculcate, a rival form of Syrian national consciousness within the Golan Heights.

Redefining Nationalism Through Opposition to Assad

26Activists invoked Syrian national consciousness to justify local opposition to the regime in a variety of media, including slogans chanted or displayed at rallies, graffiti surreptitiously painted in public spaces in Majdal Shams, and written statements published on the Internet. The first such invocation of national consciousness appeared in the written manifesto that initiated the campaign, published in March 2011. Signatories to the text registered their agreement with the declaration that “all who assault our people, the Syrians—whether through killing, tyranny, arrest, torture, expulsion, or pillage—is an enemy, not unlike the Israeli occupation” [kul man ya’tadī ‘alā sha’binā al-sūrī, qatalān aw baṭshān aw i’tiqālān aw ta’dhībān aw tashrīdān aw nahbān huwa bi-muthāba ‘aduw, la yakhtalif ‘an al-iḥtilāl al-isrāʾīlī] (sūriyīn min al-jawlān, 2011, n.p.). In addition to explicitly comparing the violence that the Israeli army had perpetrated against Syrian residents of the Golan Heights in 1967 to the violent repression of protests in Dara’ā in 2011, this declaration implicitly affiliated regime opponents in Majdal Shams to Syrians who expressed opposition to the Israeli state from the opposite side of the ceasefire line. Throughout 45 years of Israeli control of the Golan Heights, Syrian activists had publically maintained that residents of Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages remained an integral part of Syria’s national community, and had expressed vocal opposition to Israeli repression or mistreatment of their co-nationalists. The 2011 manifesto asserted that the act of belonging to the Syrian nation-state created mutual obligations between Syrians living in Israeli- and Syrian-controlled territory. As activists east of the ceasefire line had long agitated against Israeli rule in the Golan Heights, activists west of the de facto border were obligated to support their co-nationalists resisting the dictatorial Assad regime. Whereas state-sponsored patriotism had affiliated Syrian nationalism with opposition to Israel, the activists’ manifesto identified nationalism with the rejection of any power that mistreated Syrian citizens, including the Syrian state itself.

27Alongside condemnation of Bashār al-Assad, activists sought to use their campaign to discredit the regime’s efforts to instill loyalty among the population of Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages. In a statement posted on their Facebook page, tansīqiyyat al-thawra al-sūriyya fī al-jawlān al-sūrī al-muḥtall [Organizing the Syrian Revolution in the Occupied Syrian Golan], on 3 September 2011, the activists reacted critically to the news that a group of local residents had received permission to cross the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line to visit Druze sacred sites in Syria. The Syrian state had not permitted this visit in order to help adherents of tawaḥīd in the Golan Heights to freely practice their religion, the post declared. Rather, pilgrimage across the ceasefire line was a “performance” [masraḥiyya] that the regime “exploited” [istighlāl] to “market itself by spreading lies in the media… in order to conceal its crimes against our people and our homeland” [al-tarwīj al-i’lāmī al-kādhib alladhī i’tād taswīq nufsihi khilālihi… bi-hadaf al-taghṭiya ‘alā jirāmihi bi-haqq ahalīnā wa-waṭaninā]. In identifying state-facilitated crossings of the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line as malignant propaganda, intended to obscure state-perpetrated violence against Syrian citizens, the activists worked to undermine the efficacy of these crossings as a crucible of state-sponsored nationalism.

28Activists further asserted that, attempts to inculcate nationalism notwithstanding, the Assad regime was an obstacle to the return of Syrian sovereignty in the Golan Heights. Proponents of this argument contended that four decades of Israeli control of the contested borderland had demonstrated the Syrian state’s chronic inability (or unwillingness) to reclaim the territory. In interviews conducted in summer 2012, several activists speculated that the regime had conducted closed-door negotiations with Israel, and had agreed to exchange permanent Israeli control over the contested borderland for peaceful relations between the two countries. During rallies in Majdal Shams, demonstrators publicized this theory with the anti-Assad chant “bastard—sold the Golan” [ibn al-ḥarām bā’ al-jawlān]. At a demonstration on 6 July 2012, one activist identified the overthrow of the regime as a necessary precursor to the reincorporation of the occupied Golan Heights into Syria by displaying a sign with the slogan “he who kills freedoms doesn’t free nations” [man yaqtal al-aḥrār lā yuḥarrir al-awṭān]. In placing Bashār al-Assad in contradistinction to the Syrian citizens who hoped to reunite the contested borderland with the nation-state, these slogans called for residents of the Golan Heights to decouple their sentiments of belonging to the Syrian nation from their natal community’s longstanding endorsement of Bashār al-Assad. Since 1967, the Syrian state had endeavored to reconstitute the kin and other affective networks that bridged the ceasefire line, co-opting the population’s sentimental ties to generate support for the Assad regime. The anti-Assad campaign in 2011 and 2012, in contrast, sought to reframe and exploit the same affective links to advance the opposite aim. The campaign proposed that, in order to help kin and other compatriots on the far side of the ceasefire line, and expedite the reunion of the Golan Heights with the Syrian state, residents of the borderland community should publically call for the overthrow of Bashār al-Assad.

A New Proto-National Community

29Having discursively decoupled the Assad regime from Syrian patriotism in the Golan Heights, local activists identified the ad-hoc assemblage of dissident Syrians who had begun agitating against the regime in March 2011 as an alternative valence for national consciousness in their natal community. In crafting their anti-Assad campaign, regime opponents in and around Majdal Shams joined anti-regime artistic, political, and social networks that linked Syrian dissidents within and without the nation-state’s borders. These networks encompassed direct communication between activists based on opposite sides of the ceasefire line, and the circulation of videos and images between Israeli- and Syrian-controlled territories. By establishing direct and indirect relationships with anti-regime activists living outside of the Golan Heights, the anti-Assad campaign generated new ties between the borderland population and a newly-reconceived Syrian national community. As one activist stated in an interview, there were “no borders” between Syrian dissidents living inside and outside the contested territory.

30Communication between individual activists in Majdal Shams and dissidents living in Syrian-controlled territory commenced soon after the beginning of protests in Dara’ā in March 2011, and continued during the months that the activists organized their anti-regime campaign in the Golan Heights. During correspondence with a Syria-based activist in the months after the protests began, two regime opponents from the Golan Heights received an invitation to attend a three-day conference of Syrian dissidents, held in Antalya, Turkey in May and June 2011. In an interview conducted in summer 2012, one of the two conference attendees reported that he remained in digital contact with activists who he had met in Antalya, and that he had facilitated contacts between his fellow activists in the Golan Heights and their compatriots living in Syrian-controlled territory. By the summer of 2012, when the campaign reached a peak of activity, one organizer reported in an interview that “everyone” involved in the campaign had communicated with activists on the far side of the ceasefire line, and some provided “technical support” to activists in Syria by editing and disseminating photographs and video footage recorded at demonstrations elsewhere in the country. These interactions and collaborations, while restricted to private digital spaces, informed the public activities of the anti-Assad campaign.

31Activists’ interpersonal relationships across the ceasefire line that separated the Golan Heights from Syrian-controlled territory, forged on the basis of shared political beliefs, were distinct from earlier practices of communication and passage across the ceasefire line. The practices facilitated by the Syrian state—such as mass shouting at the talat al-ṣurākh and enrollment at the University of Damascus—strengthened ties between individual residents of the Golan Heights and an abstract Syrian nation personified by the Assad regime. Other crossing programs, as well as events at the talat al-ṣurākh, endeavored to preserve kin and confessional networks that predated the Israeli occupation of the borderland. Digital interactions between anti-regime activists, in contrast, cultivated interpersonal ties on the basis of contemporary political allegiances, and connected individuals who would not have met during state-facilitated crossing and communication programs. Through such practices, anti-regime activists modeled the redefined Syrian national community that they invited their neighbors to join.

32Alongside its outreach to residents of the Golan Heights, the anti-Assad campaign of 2011 and 2012 was consciously designed for an audience of regime opponents living on the far side of the ceasefire line. In an interview, one local activist asserted that anti-regime demonstrations and other activities in Majdal Shams exerted a “huge influence” on some activists in Syria, encouraging them to continue their political activities despite the threat of state violence. In addition to creating their Facebook page, tansīqiyyat al-thawra al-sūriyya fī al-jawlān al-sūrī al-muḥtall, the activists established the YouTube channel jawlanwithsyria, and used both sites to publicize photographs and video footage of their campaign. Some protest activities were intended solely for online consumption. On 3 August 2012, for example, a group of 40 demonstrators gathered in the ruins of Qunaiṭra and staged a rally in a bullet-scarred building that, prior to the Israeli occupation, had housed the Central Command of the Syrian army. The protestors posed for photographs holding anti-regime signs, and produced videos of themselves chanting anti-regime slogans. The Qunaiṭra rally was staged in an uninhabited area nearly 20 kilometers from Majdal Shams, and was not designed to inculcate a new conception of Syrian nationalism in the borderland population. Rather, local activists sought to demonstrate to a transnational community of Syrian dissidents that the Golan Heights was integrated into a broader network of Syrians who opposed the Assad regime. As they encouraged their neighbors to adopt an ad-hoc assemblage of regime opponents as the valence of their Syrian national consciousness, the activists asserted the integral belonging of their own campaign to that assemblage.

33The 2011-2012 anti-Assad campaign in the Golan Heights was schizophrenic in its aims. Explicitly, the activists aligned themselves with two political goals: the overthrow of Bashār al-Assad, and the resumption of Syrian sovereignty in the Golan Heights. Implicitly, however, the campaign also endeavored to inculcate a novel form of Syrian national consciousness in a contested borderland where, previously, the act of defining nationalism had been monopolized by states. It seems clear that activists adopted this second, implicit aim as a direct result of the ongoing contest between Israel and Syria to inculcate their respective nationalisms in Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages. In a community where most residents studied in Israeli-run public schools and interacted with Israelis on a daily basis, activists would have understood that their criticism of the Syrian state could be understood as an implicit endorsement of Israeli rule. And, after four decades during which the Assad regime had mediated most flows of people and information between the borderland population and the broader national community, activists may have speculated that local residents would struggle to reintegrate into Syria if a different regime took power, redefining the nation-state on the far side of the ceasefire line. In order to address these twin risks, activists designed a campaign that endeavored to decouple their community’s sentiments of Syrian national consciousness from support for Bashār al-Assad.


34Michiel Baud and Willem Van Schendel propose that historians adopt the metaphor of a “borderland life cycle” to describe the cyclical evolution of borderlands, a process that begins with the inscription of a border, continues through its concretization and acceptance, and concludes with the border’s erasure. In their formulation, this cycle begins with an “infant borderland,” where a newly-demarcated boundary does not affect national identities or socioeconomic networks, and subsequently advances to the stage of an “adult borderland,” in which kin and economic networks are largely circumscribed by (or defined by their transgression of) the border. At the time that field research for this article was conducted in 2012, the five Syrian villages in the Golan Heights constituted, in Baud and Van Schendel’s formulation, an “adolescent borderland,” in which “the border has now become an undeniable reality, but its genesis is still recent…. [a]lthough economic and social relations are already beginning to be confined by the existence of the new border, old networks have not yet disintegrated and still form powerful links across the border” (Baud and Van Schendel, 1997, p. 224). Residents of the five villages were integrated into networks that reached across both sides of the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line, and both Israel and Syria constituted rival valences for the national identity of the local population. As this article has contended, this rivalry reconstituted a variety of practices in the borderland community, including the anti-Assad political campaign of 2011 and 2012, as crucibles for the inculcation of rival nationalisms. During this campaign, activists designed their rhetoric and activities to cultivate new ties between the borderland and the Syrian nation-state. The campaign—like earlier Syrian state projects to maintain relations with the borderland population—served to retard the evolution of the Israeli-Syrian borderland towards its “adult” stage, in which de facto incorporation into Israel would largely define the social and economic networks of the five villages.

35In the nearly four years that have elapsed between the outbreak of protests in Syria and the publication of this article, the situation in the Golan Heights has changed dramatically. Fighting between the Syrian army and rebel forces in southwestern Syria has forced a lengthy hiatus in ICRC-brokered crossings of the ceasefire line, and has rendered the talat al-ṣurākh inaccessible to civilians. The effect of these changes on national consciousness in the five villages—and on the procession of the Golan Heights through the “borderland life cycle”—remains unclear. After years of warfare, neither the Assad regime nor an ad-hoc assemblage of Syrian dissidents and rebel forces constitute a political body that borderland residents can confidently identify as the nucleus of Syria’s national community. The conflict has destabilized Syria’s status as a nation-state, undermining the ongoing attempts by anti-regime activists (as well as the regime itself) to cultivate Syrian national consciousness in the Golan Heights. During the same period, official projects to further incorporate the contested region into the Israeli nation-state have continued apace. On a superficial level, these projects—reinforcement of the fortifications along the ceasefire line, increased economic investment in Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages, outreach to local residents that encourages applications for Israeli citizenship—have served to further the incorporation of the territory into the Israeli nation-state. The degree to which this incorporation furthers the spread of Israeli national consciousness, and the progression of the Golan Heights towards the status of an “adult” borderland, will largely be determined by the changing situation on the far side of the ceasefire line.

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1 Research for this article was funded by the Jewish Studies Fund and the Dean’s Award for Summer Research of the Gallatin School for Individualized Study, New York University. The author would like to thank the following individuals for assistance during the research, writing, and editing process: Hamid Awidat, Rafik Ayoub, Ryvka Barnard, Marguarette Bolton-Blatt, Marie Cruz Soto, Munir Fakher Eldin, Hallie Franks, Ester Gould, Amani Hassan, Alex Kane, Ben Koerber, Sabine Lubbe Bakker, Nimrod Luz, Keith Walsh, and the editors and anonymous reviewers of this issue of L’Espace politique. Field research in Majdal Shams was conducted in June, July, and August 2012.

2 A description of the precise process by which civilians were exiled from the Golan Heights, or an explanation of the relative homogeneity of the population that remained, is beyond the scope of this article (and can only be speculative before the declassification of official Syrian and Israeli records of the war). Testimonies collected by journalists and researchers, however, indicate that the Israeli army forced most Syrian civilians out of the occupied territory, but permitted Druze communities to remain intact. During the initial invasion, for example, residents of seven neighboring villages took refuge in Majdal Shams because of its relatively large population and defensible location on Mount Hermon. After the Israeli army secured the area, troops permitted residents of three nearby Druze villages to leave Majdal Shams and return to their homes, but demolished the four non-Druze villages and forced their inhabitants into Syrian-controlled territory (Mara’i and Halabi, 1992, p. 79; Tarabieh, 2000, p. 4). The Israeli army’s selection of Druze Syrians as the primary community that remained in the occupied Golan Heights may have been connected to a longstanding Zionist and Israeli policy of distinguishing Druze communities from the indigenous Arab population in Israel. According to historian Kais M. Firro, a desire to weaken Arab nationalist opposition to the Israeli state motivated civil and military authorities in Israel to “divide” the Druze population in the Galilee region from Palestinian Christians and Muslims (Firro, 2001, p. 41). The process of distinguishing the Galilee Druze community from local Christians and Muslims began in the 1940s, and included the maintenance of peaceful relations between Zionist forces and Druze civilians during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, differential treatment of Druze men under Israeli conscription laws, and the legal definition of tawaḥīd as a distinct religious community, rather than a heterodox Muslim sect (ibid, pp. 41 and 45; Firro, 2011, pp. 61-62).

3 My thanks to Dr. Fakher Eldin for sharing with me the text of this lecture, as well as other unpublished materials.

4 The ICRC crossing program operated fitfully and was subject to an evolving body of restrictions. During some years, the program did not operate; during other years, the list of reasons that applicants could cite in order to receive approval to cross was circumscribed. Various justifications for passage were accepted in the following years: family reunification (1967-1981; 1990-1991), family/medical emergency (1990-present), university enrollment (1976-1981; 1994-present), marriage (1990-present), and pilgrimage (1994-present).

5 Statistics of the number of individuals who crossed the ceasefire line through an ICRC program were available for the years 1990-2012 (inclusive). During these years, a total of 3,227 individuals received permission to cross (1,580 for pilgrimage, 1,419 for university study, 145 for family or medical emergencies, and 83 for marriage). My thanks to Ms. Anna Rivkin, Tracing Officer and Data Administrator of the Tel Aviv office of the ICRC, for furnishing me with these statistics.

6 For a profile of two students from Majdal Shams during a year studying at the University of Damascus, see the 2010 documentary film Shout, directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould (Pieter van Hustee Film and Television).

7 My thanks to anti-regime activists in Majdal Shams, who allowed me to attend organizing meetings and demonstrations during July and August 2012, and provided details about the first 15 months of their campaign.

8 At the time of publication, footage of this incident was available on YouTube at the following links:, and

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Référence électronique

Julian Cole Phillips, « The Anti-Assad Campaign in the Occupied Golan Heights, 2011-2012: Reimagining Syrian Nationalism in a Contested Borderland », L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 27 | 2015-3, mis en ligne le 06 janvier 2016, consulté le 12 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/espacepolitique.3576

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Julian Cole Phillips

Étudiant en Master
The Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, New York University

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