The Syrian Golan: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Hannah Russell. Hannah is currently undertaking a PhD at Queen’s University, Belfast entitled the ‘Right to Life and European Conflicts’. She has worked for human rights organizations in Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Occupied Syrian Golan and Palestine. This has included working as a legal researcher and consultant for Al-Marsad – Arab Human Rights Centre in the Golan Heights.

The Syrian Golan: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

As the world’s attention rightly turns to the developing civil war in Syria, a small piece of land less than 60km to the east of Damascus which has suffered over four decades of turmoil continues to be neglected. The Golan, home to rich water sources and fertile soil, is a mountainous region located in the southwest of Syria. The Golan is Syrian land which became illegally occupied by Israel in 1967 following the Arab-Israeli War and, following the implementation of the Israeli Golan Heights Law, has been illegally annexed by Israel since 1981.

Once home to 153,000 Syrians who were spread across two cities and over 200 villages and farms, the Golan now consists of only five Arab villages which are inhabited by 20,000 Syrians. Thousands have been permanently displaced to Syria proper and the ceasefire line has become impassable except to a select few, having all sorts of ramifications for families and the economy. Israel has taken full advantage of the circumstances including constructing and expanding illegal Jewish settlements within the region. At present there are 33 illegal settlements and a growing population of 20,000 illegal settlers in the Occupied Golan. Furthermore, the indigenous Arab population of the Golan is subject to discrimination in relation to taxes; water supplies; employment; economic opportunities; housing; and freedom of movement. Land has been expropriated; crops destroyed and access to land inhibited. All of this has been implemented by the Israeli authorities to the advantage of illegal Jewish settlers. In addition, the Syrian Arabs who have rejected Israeli citizenship (because to do so would result in denouncing their Syrian heritage and assist in cementing Israel’s illegal annexation) are denied passports and categorised as having “undefined” nationality.

As those with any knowledge of Israel and the occupied territories will have noticed discriminatory tactics used against Syrian Arabs are similar to those used against Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory. Yet the legal framework, political situation and violations of international law which exist in the Golan are different and for that reason require specific attention. Nevertheless, in reality the plight of Syrian Arabs tends to be merged with Palestinian grievances, to the point that the Golan’s story is neglected. Consequently those campaigning for recognition, equality and justice within the Golan face an additional challenge of trying to change this culture of generalisation that has developed within both political and humanitarian spheres.

The first organisation to be established within the Golan with the task of addressing the long-neglected human rights situation in the region is Al-Marsad – Arab Human Rights Centre in the Golan Heights. Al-Marsad works tirelessly to expose and challenge the violations of international law occurring within the Golan and is committed to doing so from a grass-roots point of view. It promotes a rights based approach as the way forward in addressing, highlighting and solving the problems facing the Syrian community of the Golan. Its actions include monitoring and documenting violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws, and providing a pro-bono legal service to the local Arab population. Issues that Al-Marsad has highlighted in the past and continues to work on include: illegality of Israel’s occupation/effective annexation of the Golan; expropriation of land; illegality of Jewish settlements; landmines; separation of families; discrimination; restriction on freedom of movement; and Israel’s exploitation of the local economy and resources.

For those interested in providing practical support Al-Marsad offers rolling internships for between three and six months – see While internships are unpaid, free accommodation is provided along with limitless hospitality and the invaluable experience of becoming part of the local community. As a small organization their interns become valued members of staff and, as a number of previous interns are testament to, it is a great way to develop your career in human rights. Previous interns have gone on to work as human rights specialists for non-governmental organizations, governmental organizations and United Nations bodies across the globe.

Conversations with locals over the last two years have indicated that until relatively recently Syria proper was put on a pedestal by the Arab population of the Golan. With recent developments the Golan is now caught between a rock and a hard place – on the one side living under the oppression and systematic discrimination of Israeli occupation, and on the other watching its homeland being torn apart and all the anxieties for family members and the future that comes with that. With its future increasingly uncertain, the Syrian population of the Golan’s fight for recognition, equality and justice (on both sides of the ceasefire line) seems all the more pertinent.