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Hebrew press sees thaw in Syria-Israel relations

July 14, 2010 5:48 P.M. (Updated: July 15, 2010 1:48 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - For the first time since Israel occupied and annexed the Golan Heights, a group of Dabka performers from the area's five Druze villages will be permitted to travel to Aleppo to compete, Israel's Hebrew-language daily newspaper Ma'ariv reported.

Viewing the traditional Levantine dance troupe as an example of a thaw in relations between Israel and Syria, the newspaper suggested Israeli officials were easing restrictions on residents of the Golan Heights - taken from Syria in 1967 and illegally annexed in 1981 - to demonstrate a willingness for peace.

Dabka group founder Samir Dabous was "beside himself with excitement" when he received the invitation from the festival organizers, Ma'ariv reported, noting the troupe had earned an excellent reputation in local, national, and regional festivals. Dabous, the daily noted, is one of just over 500 of the 25,000 formerly Syrian residents of the Golan Heights who took Israeli citizenship when it was offered in 1982 following the unrecognized annexation of the area.

The troupe leader's father, the article went on to explain, was killed in an Israeli airstrike on the now destroyed village of Kursi, declared a national park in the late 1980s. The death put Dabous' family on the list of bereaved relatives of the Syrian army, with which his father fought.

“When I received the invitation I applied to the Israeli Interior Ministry for permission to enter Syria via the Kuneitra border crossing,” Dabous said, describing a UN-operated terminal that runs through the ghost-town of the formerly Syrian provincial capital for the Golan.

The dance coach said he was hopeful, given the relatively recent decision by Israel to allow university students to travel back and forth through the crossing for courses in Damascus. “In addition to students, in recent years they have allowed sheikhs, elderly women and produce [to cross the border]. This year, young women have been permitted to cross for the first time," he told the Israeli newspaper.

According to the article, "Druze residents of the Golan have felt a thaw in the attitude of their 'father', Syrian President Bashar Assad," quoting Dabous as saying "I believe that Syria still views us as Syrians." Those born before 1967 retain their Syrian citizenship, and most have family living across the disengagement line in New Kunetra or other nearby villages where they fled during the 1967 fighting.

"Maybe they are trying to use us as a bridge to peace. If that’s true, we’d be thrilled. I haven’t been to Damascus since 1966. I’d love to go there," Dabous told the newspaper, hoping Israel would finally return the Golan Heights to Syria.
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