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'The war has divided families more than decades of Israeli occupation ever did'

A newly-released Irish film documents the lives of people in Majdal Shams – one of five remaining Arab villages in the Golan Heights.

Source: WildCard Distribution/YouTube

A PERSON WHO loses his homeland is like a child who loses his mother. Syria is our mother.

THE GOLAN HEIGHTS were seized by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. Most of the Arab inhabitants fled during the conflict.

Before the occupation there were 136 villages in the area, most of which have been destroyed. In 1982 – in violation of a UN resolution – Israel annexed the Golan Heights, forcing Israeli citizenship on the Arab residents. People refused to accept this and, as a result, their nationality is classed as ‘undefined’.

About 22,000 Arabs remain, as well as 20,000 Jewish settlers.

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Since 2005, the Red Cross has facilitated the transport of apples from the Druze farmers of the Golan Heights into Syria. It is the only trade between Israel and Syria.

In Apples of the Golan, two Irish filmmakers – Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth – have documented the life of residents of Majdal Shams, one of the five remaining villages, over a five-year period.

Filming began in 2007 and ended in 2012, the year after civil war broke out in Syria.

Walsh said returning to Majdal Shams after the Syrian uprising was an interesting experience as he witnessed first-hand how some families had become divided over the war.

Family dinners would have two sittings: one for members of the family who are pro-regime and one for members who are anti-regime.

Walsh said it would be difficult to put a figure on how many people in the village remain loyal, publicly at least, to Bashar al-Assad – but that it appears to be in the region of 85-90%.

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“Israeli occupation wasn’t able to divide the community like the Syrian conflict has,” Walsh noted.

Even when people didn’t agree with Assad, they were still united. They didn’t want to appear divided by the Israeli occupation as this would make them weak.

Many of the villagers rely on the apple trade to survive.

Crossing the Syrian border

The Quneitra crossing is the only way into Syria from the Golan Heights. Before the outbreak of the war four things could cross the border: apples, brides, students and pilgrims. Once a bride went to Syria she could not return to the Heights, and vice versa.

Druze students received grants to study in Syria. They were not allowed to return home during term, but could do so in the summer.

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In August of last year, the Syrian side of the border crossing between Israel and Syria was captured by rebel forces including several Islamist groups. Whilst it is in their control, the movement of apples and people has ceased, further isolating the Golan Heights.

Due to their beliefs, the Druze are regarded as infidels and heretics by these Islamic groups. They fear persecution if Assad completely loses power.

“The Druze are a very pragmatic bunch, they’ve been on the fringes of Muslim society for a long time and have been persecuted for it,” Walsh said.

If people in the Heights came out against Assad before the war, their families would have been persecuted in Syria.

More than 76,000 Syrians were killed in the war in 2014 – making it the bloodiest year since the conflict began in 2011.

Apples of the Golan's Photos - Apples of the Golan | Facebook Beardsworth and Walsh on location. Source: Facebook

Beardsworth said she and Walsh are “delighted that our film is being released at a time when the Golan Heights region is at the centre of political discourse, both nationally and internationally”.

Apples of the Golan has been screened in several countries, taking home the jury prize for best documentary at the Baghdad International Film Festival in 2013.

It is currently running at the IFI in Dublin and will be screened in a number of cinemas nationally. The film will be released on iTunes on Monday. More information is available here.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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