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Golan Heights residents trapped in the middle of Syria-Israel peace debate
GOLAN HEIGHTS (CNN) -- While world leaders debate the fate of the Golan Heights, thousands of residents inside the occupied territory can do nothing but watch and wonder what will happen to their homeland.
Before the death Saturday of Syrian President Hafez Assad, many residents held out hope that Syria and Israel soon would resume talks over returning the strategic territory, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
But with the likely ascension of Assad's son Bashar, people don't know what to think.
"We lost all our hope," one Syrian woman cried. "Hafez Al-Assad was our father, and we based all our hope on him. God willing, Bashar will be like him."
Even Israelis disagree
Jewish settler David Widzer, a Golan transplant from Southern California, is resigned to uprooting himself again.
"Eventually there will be peace some day," Widzer said. "It's inevitable."
Gesturing from his tractor across a sunlit field, Widzer added, "And this eventually will go back to Syria."
Others, however, say there is no reason for the Israelis to leave.
Teacher Joshua Cirt, from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said peace already exists in the Golan Heights -- thanks to Israel. Cirt opposes giving back the land to Syria.
"Ever since the Golan has been in our hands, there has been no war," he said.
Sea of Galilee waters are vital
A key obstacle to any return, as far as the Israelis are concerned, is a thin strip of land that fronts the Sea of Galilee.
Before his death, Assad was adamant that Israel return every bit of the Golan Heights if the two countries were to reach a settlement. The 69-year-old president reportedly told U.S. President Bill Clinton once that he wanted some day to stick his feet back in Buhayrat Tabariya, as the Sea of Galilee is known in Arabic. Assad had fished in the waters as a boy.
Israel, however, insists it must have access by land to the sea, the source of one-third of its fresh water.
A town caught behind bitter lines
About 17,000 Syrians live in the Golan Heights. Thousands more fled when the Israelis occupied the land in 1967.
Decked out in black flags to mark the death of Hafez Assad, the village of Majdal Shams is the largest Arab settlement in the Golan.
Many in Majdal Shams are bitter because their Israeli occupiers refused Tuesday to let them make the trek to Damascus, the Syrian capital, for Assad's funeral.
For them, there are daily reminders of the occupation and the ever present threat of war.
Just outside Majdal Shams lies the cease-fire line, with U.N. peacekeepers close by. Here, Arabs can talk to their Syrian relatives on the other side. They call it the Valley of the Shouts.
'Syria will not change'
Some people in the town worry that Bashar Assad won't be as tough as his father at the negotiating table.
"President Hafez Al-Assad held steadfast against compromising one inch of his land," said Emile Kadamani. "We are afraid that those who succeed him will be more flexible and willing to compromise."
But others, including Fayez Safadi, believe the new Syrian leader will hang tough.
"Israel will have to realize Syria will not change its policy, no matter who's in power," he said.
Syrians, world leaders bid farewell to Hafez Assad
National Council for the Golan
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