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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Golan Heights Fire Israelis' Internal Struggle

GAMLA, Israeli-occupied Golan Heights -- Above a bleak razorback ridge where 4,000 Jews leaped to their death before Roman swords, Michael Landsberg says he will starve rather than see Jews leave this land again.

"We are fighting for our country, for the future of Israel," said Landsberg, 34, one of 11 Israelis on a hunger strike to protest the possible return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

The long-expected internal struggle in Israel over the Golan Heights has begun in earnest, kindled in part by this hunger strike at the site of an ancient Jewish mass suicide.

There are growing signs a deal is afoot that will decide the fate of the Golan Heights. Israel and Syria have swapped public gestures. U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross arrived in Damascus on Monday to the odd sight of billboards applauding peace.

But when a deal with Syria is reached, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin faces a potentially tougher task selling it to his own people.

Polls show a majority opposed to withdrawal. Golan Heights residents are boosting the emotional pitch, evoking the ghosts of fallen war heroes and prodding the ever-acute Israeli fear of annihilation.

The hunger strikers are camped on a rocky outcrop overlooking Gamla, where the last holdouts of a Jewish rebellion against Rome leaped to their death when Roman troops breached their walls in A.D. 67. Like the Jewish community at the time, modern Israel will be threatened if it gives up the Golan Heights, the protesters believe.

"Once Gamla fell it took only four months for Jerusalem to surrender," said Landsberg. "We're fighting for Jerusalem."

Unlike the West Bank settlers, zealously motivated by what they see as a biblical right to the land, many of the settlers on the Golan Heights came at the encouragement of past Labor governments.

The Labor roots of the Golan Heights settlements pose a severe danger to Rabin's government. Already six Labor members of his slim coalition majority in the Knesset have threatened to break party ranks.

The Golan Heights separates Israel and Syria with a broad plateau that has a siren's lure to military generals.

From its hills, an army could sweep west 32 kilometers down into the fertile Israeli Galilee Valley, or charge east across 48 kilometers of flat plain into Damascus.

The region, captured by the Israelis in 1967, now has about 13,000 Israelis and 16,000 Druze and Moslem Arabs living on its arid hills.

El-Rom, a kibbutz with 56 families and the largest dairy cow shed in Israel, was named in reports last week as likely to be the first Jewish settlement turned over if there is a peace agreement with Syria.

Residents of El-Rom met the news with a measure of resignation. To some, it has been home for 23 years.

"Most of the people want some agreement. We don't have the right to say we don't accept any agreement," acknowledged the secretary of the Kibbutz, Shimon Bar-on. "We just don't think Israel should have to go back to the 1967 lines. Syria should give something, too."

A mile up the road, the Druze residents of Buqata said they are less concerned. They have tended their fields under successive governments of the French, the Syrians and now the Israelis, they said. Another change will not matter.

"We have our own way of life, our fields, our work, our traditions," said Ghabib Qatar, 39. "People who don't get involved in politics can live quietly, can live well."