Friends may have learned about Forgotten Occupation, published in 2018 by the Al-Marsad Arab Human Rights Centre in Golan Heights, when Friend Helena Cobban shared it through her organization, Just World Educational. Like all of the books that Just World Educational recommends, this one helps readers to understand a justice issue more fully. It explains that the book’s title refers to the fact that “the occupied Syrian Golan is often referred to as the forgotten occupation.” This book offers a modern history of the region from its residents and a range of legal scholars.
The legal experts consulted believe the occupation of Golan Heights violates many laws, protocols, and guidelines. These include guidelines expressed through UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, Hague Regulations, and the International Court of Justice. Chapters focus on such topics as family separation, landmines, agriculture, settlement industries, education, oil, housing, and water. The authors regularly share that “130 thousand people [95 percent of the population] were forcibly transferred or displaced as a result of the conflict” and that “[al]though the population of Syrians and Israeli settlers is roughly the same, Syrians are restricted to five percent of the occupied Syrian Golan, whereas the Israeli settlers control the other 95 percent.”
I learned for the first time that the region contains an estimated 1.2 million landmines; the fact that “in 2016, a [UN] Special Committee observed that the school curriculum in the occupied Golan ‘sought to diminish’ Syrian identity and culture as well as the civilisation and history of the local community”; and the fact that “Israeli settlers enjoy a free and state-sponsored infrastructure, which includes free access to waterpipes and electricity lines. In contrast, the Syrian population is financially responsible for their own waterpipes and electricity lines, which adds significant costs to construction.” Although there were times that I wondered how Israelis might differently interpret some of the same information, there is no denying how stunning some of the facts are, especially those about the disparities between the experience of Israeli citizens and Syrian residents of the Golan region.
In summer 2018, I was able to spend a month in the West Bank with the support of the Quaker Palestine Israel Network. Much of what I read in Forgotten Occupation reminded me of what I saw during that trip, from the disproportionate availability of water for Israeli settlements to occupied land to Israeli settlements being built over the villages and farms of those who had been displaced to security concerns being cited for the restriction of movement for all of those living under occupation.
The solidarity actions of the Syrians in the Golan region also reminded me of what I have studied about Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent activism, including an Israeli group, the Mine-Free Israel Campaign, advocating for landmines to be removed from the region; Syrian teachers and farmers forming cooperative groups to best serve their communities; and individuals refusing to rent land from Israelis so as not to recognize the occupation. This book serves not only as a window into the situation in the Golan region itself but also to illustrate how the region is a microcosm of conditions under Israeli occupation.
Books like Forgotten Occupation are important because they offer readers individual faces and stories to associate with global issues. The book often laments the lack of either Israeli or international calls for justice on behalf of the Syrian residents of the Golan region and states: “Pressure must be brought to bear on Israel to ensure it respects its obligation as a state party to the Convention and end settlement building in all occupied territory, including that of the occupied Syrian Golan.” Ultimately, for me, the most powerful aspect of the book were the pages that began each chapter, in which a resident described their experience in their own words. One resident shared that “our hearts are on fire.” The book asks that readers let these stories into our own hearts and then act in solidarity.