Israel launches illegal local council elections in Syrian Golan Heights after 50 years of occupation
For the first time in the more than 50 years that the Golan Heights have been occupied by Israel, it will be compulsory for Syrian citizens in the villages of occupied Golan to vote in local council elections in late November, 2018. For the first time since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, opponents and supporters of the Syrian government agreed to boycott the local council elections in occupied Golan, considering them undemocratic and an excuse to legitimize the occupation. However, others supported the elections amid the crumbling sovereignty of the Syrian government.
In the mid-1970s, Israel established local councils in the Syrian villages in occupied Golan, but was forced to appoint the council members from its Interior Ministry after Golan's Syrian residents refused to participate and grant the councils legitimacy under Israeli law. Now, the Israeli government has decided to hold the local council elections in the villages of Golan, coinciding with the upcoming Israeli municipal elections later this month.
The poet and political activist Yasser Khangar, who is a founding member of the Youth Movement in occupied Golan, said, “These elections are not really democratic, because only Israeli citizens can run for the municipality chairman position, and only 12 percent of the Syrian residents of the occupied Golan are Israeli citizens. The elections are asking the remaining 88 percent of the Syrian residents to elect their representatives from the among the Israeli minority.”
Khangar added, “We do not agree that the institution, which works for the occupation, represents the people of Golan, because we stand on opposite sides in all political, cultural and sometimes humanitarian issues.”
In a research paper published in August 2018, the Observatory, the Arab Center for Human Rights in the occupied Golan revealed that the elections are a violation of international law. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.”
Elections as a prelude to legitimizing occupation
In late April 2016, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies issued a report that states, “When the Syrian Revolution began in 2011 and the Syrian regime chose to turn it into a civil war, Israel took a stance that aims to prolong this war and weaken Syria to the extreme. Since 2014, especially after the Islamic State appeared, the leaders of Israel and its advocates have been saying that Syria is finished and cannot be reconstituted, and that dividing it on sectarian, ethnic and regional bases is now a reality. Israeli leaders lobbied for the war in Syria not only to divide Golan, but also to demand the international community, especially the United States, Russia, and the European Union, to recognize Israel's annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and to grant it international legitimacy.”
The activist Khangar said that the municipal elections could be a prelude to a referendum on the future of the occupied Golan. Khangar added, “Our concerns are that Israel may allow only one group of society to vote on the future of Golan, and that this group represents the will of the Israeli state, not the will of the people.” Khangar added that the local council is one of the Israeli Interior Ministry’s arms in Golan, stating that the local council does not exist to serve the people; it is a means of administering state projects and impsing its authority.
Some Syrians in the occupied Golan support elections amid Syria’s torn sovereignty
The Golan Human Rights Center said that according to its research, most of the Syrians in the occupied Golan consider the elections a way for Israel to legitimize itself in Golan. Israel exploits the conflict in Syria and the international community’s failure to end it to expand settlements in the occupied Golan and exploit its natural resources. The international community continues to demand the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in Golan under the pretext that Syria is no longer united.
According to Khangar, other Syrians in the occupied Golan support the elections and think that Syria’s interest lies in accepting Israel and its projects. These Syrians also support the elections because of their own interests, hoping to obtain Israeli government jobs, and because of the absence of the Syrian state, which they realized is unable to meet their expectations of a peaceful life. These Syrians also consider that Syria is ruled by a president who does not represent the future they long for, according to Khangar.
Khangar added that Israel benefits from societal contradictions and disintegration in Golan to impose its will, noting that Israel exploits the deep division in the occupied Golan’s society regarding the Syrian issue as well as international factors that contribute to Israel’s belief that it will control Golan forever, as regional and international forces intervene in Syria and the Syrian government loses its sovereignty.
Syrian government supporters and opponents refuse elections and burn Israeli ballots
Activists in the Youth Movement in the occupied Golan say that they belong to a youth project interested in cultural, political, and social issues. The activists reject the “Israelization” of Golan, geographically and intellectually. On October 19, 2018, the Youth Movement organized a protest with Syrians residents of the occupied Golan in the Sultan Basha al-Atrash square in the village of Majdal Shams to reject the elections. The protesters burned the election ballots in reminiscence of protesters who burned Israeli identity cards during the Grand Strike in 1982 against the occupation of Golan and Israel’s attempts at imposing the citizenship on all residents of the occupied Golan.
Khangar said, “For the first time since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Syrian government supporters and opponents stand together against this Israeli project. We agree to work together on all issues related to the Israelitization of Golan; however, we keep our opinion regarding the Syrian issue to ourselves.”
The Youth Movement continues to organize protests and events to confront the Israeli local council elections in the occupied Golan, calling upon its candidates to withdraw. Some of the candidates withdrew, and the activists continue to call for a general strike on the election day and protests in front of the polling stations.