RAMALLAH, West Bank — The people of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights have rejected the Israeli government’s decision to hold local elections next year in four Golan villages: Majdal Shams, Bukata, Masada and Ein Qinya. To allow such elections, they said, would be to recognize the occupation.
Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri notified local Golan authorities July 6 of the decision to hold elections on Oct. 30, 2018. The elections would be the first under Israeli law since the Golan Heights was occupied in 1967. Israel has been accustomed to appointing local council heads and members in the Golan Heights, where nearly 23,000 people live. To many of those residents, there's a big symbolic difference between appointed and elected leaders.
After a general meeting July 11, the Golanese issued a statement that said, “The Israeli goal behind the elections is to have the Golanese recognize the occupation as legitimate.” They said, “Israel has no right to impose its laws on the Syrian population and force it to give up its national identity.”
Majd Abu Saleh, a lawyer opposing the Israeli decision, told Al-Monitor that under Israeli election laws, eligible candidates for local elections should have Israeli citizenship, which applies to only 5% of the Golanese. The rest carry Israeli IDs indicating permanent residency — but they are not entitled to run for office. That negates any democratic principle of the elections, Abu Saleh said.
“The Golanese perceive local councils elected in accordance with Israeli law to be representative of Israeli authorities. The elections are therefore a means to provide local authorities with political legitimacy, which is something we are against," he said.
“The population deals with the [Israeli-] appointed councils in terms of the services provided, and this is what we want. Their political stances, however, do not represent ours. Yet, if elected, the local councils will be entitled to represent us politically [and] those heading these councils will be pro-Israel.”
Political activist Salman Fakhreddin told Al-Monitor, “The Golanese deserve to have good civil services, which the occupation ought to provide under international law, without correlating these services with the population’s political stances or national affiliation.”
Fakhri Abu Saleh, the director of the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies’ Golan Salon, told Al-Monitor, “The elections are designed to bring the Golan areas under Israeli law, which could ignite a dispute among its social components and will not bring any significant gains to the population.”
In light of the rejection by the Golanese, he said, “Presently, there is no alternative to the appointed councils. Services provided by the elected local councils [elsewhere] in the Arab world are no different from those provided to us. The thing is that we are under an occupation force that we do not recognize and that has a responsibility toward us.”
As the interior minister’s decision is binding, the Golanese are required to mobilize their capabilities to face it. Majd Abu Saleh said, “We will be turning to the ministers to abolish said decision to meet the wishes of the Golanese. In case they do not act, we will be resorting to the courts to object to the decision.”
He added, “Whether it remains in force or is canceled, we have decided not to deal with it, or with the potential emanating local councils that would provide the occupation with legitimacy. If enforced, we will boycott it; the ballot boxes cannot not be placed in the Golan.”
The Golanese believe Israel is trying to firmly establish control over the Golan. As Israel marked the 50th anniversary of the Golan Heights occupations and the beginning of the settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said June 6, “The Golan Heights will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty. We will never leave the Golan Heights. It’s ours.”
Syria also voiced objection to the elections, which it believes would violate international law. The Syrian Foreign Ministry delivered letters June 8 to both the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressing its “categorical rejection of the Israeli occupation’s declaration to hold the so-called local elections in the occupied Syrian Golan villages.” It added, “The new Israeli decisions consist of a flagrant violation of the UN Charter, international humanitarian law and the [Fourth] Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war.”
Majd Abu Saleh said Israel is "taking advantage of the Syrian crisis, while showing that the Golanese are well-integrated and harmonious with Israel."
He said, "This is in order to support Netanyahu's efforts to obtain the international recognition that will enable him to implement the Israeli laws in the Golan Heights.”
Fakhreddin said, “Israel desires to impose a new reality in the Golan Heights by holding the elections and taking advantage of the conflict in our motherland [Syria]. This is unacceptable for us. We are not trading our national and political positions for civil services.”
The Israeli decision has reminded the Golanese of the open strike they staged Feb. 14, 1982, in protest against the Knesset decision to annex the Golan Heights and attempt to impose citizenship. The same scenario may be repeated in light of the population’s objection. Israel could escalate measures to forcibly implement the decision, which could mean a confrontation is possible.