The March 10th edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ included an item (from 17:02 here) not promoted in its synopsis. After a couple of general sentences concerning the civil war in Syria, presenter Kate Adie introduces the item as follows:
“One vantage point – if you can call it that – overlooking the war is the mountain range that rises up about 40 miles south of Damascus; the Golan Heights – an area that was part of Syria before Israel seized it in the 1967 war. The residents include around 20,000 Israeli settlers and a similar number of Syrians belonging to the religious minority the Druze. Diana Darke’s just been to meet some of them.”
As ever in BBC content, the outcome of the Six Day War is presented without background or context. Moreover, listeners are not provided with any relevant background information about the freelance occasional BBC contributor – and self-described Arabist – Diana Darke which would enable them to put her words into their appropriate context.
The “bizarre” cafe on Mount Bental
Darke opens with a description of a place once inaccurately described by the BBC as an “army position”.
“Standing in a peaceful spot, high on the volcanic cone of Mount Bental, I am gazing across into war-torn Syria. It is a surreal experience but this is the Golan Heights where anything is possible. Beside me is a bizarre hilltop café called Coffee Anan – after Kofi the former UN Secretary General. Staffed by enthusiastic Israelis from the nearby settlement of Merom Golan; Israel’s first to be built on the Heights. They are selling beer and pizza along with local pomegranate liqueur and skin creams. Sharing the vantage point are busloads of Israeli tourists and a couple of blue-capped UN observers stationed here to patrol the cease-fire line. While rising above the whole conflict is Mount Hermon, whose snow-covered summit still lies inside Syria. Israel controls a listening post bristling with antennae lower down.”
Her use of language such as “bizarre” and “settlement” is obviously part of Darke’s signposting but had audiences been informed of her “particular viewpoint” they may have found that (and the later) politicised categorisation of an Israeli kibbutz in the Golan all the more revealing given that she clearly has no issue with British people living on what she sees as Syrian land, having herself bought a house in Damascus a decade ago.
Darke then turns to her one and only named interviewee – a man who, together with his multilingual customer-tailored sales-pitches, will be familiar to anyone who has visited Mount Bental in recent years. Particularly notable is her repeated use of the word ‘now’ to describe a status quo which has been in place for well over four decades.
“In the car park I meet the cheerful Abu Amin; an elder from the Syrian Druze community with a magnificent moustache and the distinctive black baggy trousers that mark him as one of the enlightened uqqal – a spiritual level obtained only with the wisdom of age. He’s here to earn a bit of money in retirement by selling the famous local honey. He lives in one of the four Syrian Druze villages now cut off on the Golan. ‘Down there in Quneitra is where I was working as a maths teacher’ he explains philosophically, pointing out the now destroyed town. ‘When the Israelis captured it I fled back up here to Buqata. Now the border crossing is closed and our apple and cherry orchards are farmed by the kibbutz of Ein Zivan’.
Education is tremendously important to the Druze – a proud religious minority living mainly in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. Syria’s ruling Assad family was good to the Golan Druze and earned their loyalty by allowing them to study free of charge at Syrian universities even after the ’67 war, giving them a small monthly stipend. The Quneitra crossing was opened to allow several hundred students a year to continue their courses. The current war has put an end to that so many now go to Germany instead. Interrupted by periodic explosions from the direction of Damascus, Abu Amin and I exchange poignant memories of the Syrian capital where he studied for four years. ‘Although the Israelis pressure us, we will never give up our Syrian nationality’ he assures me. ‘This war will end one day and our families will be joined again’.”
Darke of course does not provide any source to support that specious paraphrased claim of Israeli “pressure” on the Golan Druze population and neither does she tell her listeners that since the civil war in Syria began increasing numbers of them have applied for Israeli citizenship, to which they have been entitled since 1981. Notably too, Darke avoids all mention of the topic of the Druze population in Syria – many of whom have family in the Druze villages on the Golan – and the topic of the connection between the support for the Assad regime voiced by some Golan Druze and their obvious concern for the welfare and safety of their relatives in Syria does not come up in her monologue. She continues:
“His certainty is admirable but the realities on the ground are different. Israel has built over thirty settlements here, thirty wineries with names like Chateau Golan and devised nature reserves to market its tourism potential. It has built a ski resort on Mount Hermon and laid out hiking trails beside the waterfalls of Banias – the ancient city of Pan. Israeli maps increasingly show the Golan as theirs, making it even harder to remember that under international law all this is Syria, whose border once reached right down to the eastern shore of Lake Galilee.”
That latter statement is of course inaccurate: the 1923 agreement between the British and the French which predated the creation of Syria left the eastern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee under the control of the British mandate authorities. Darke goes on to promote another inaccuracy:
“Israel is quietly drilling for oil on the Golan; rewarded last autumn with a major find. It has recently completed a big barrier along its border with Syria – similar to that on the West Bank – citing security concerns and the need to bring stability to the region.”
Israel not drilling for oil on the Golan: a private American company is currently carrying out exploratory drilling in part of the area and although that company’s PR has indeed included optimistic messaging to the media, the exploratory process is set to continue for the next two years and the viability of production remains at this stage unclear. Darke refrains from reminding her listeners that the new fence along the border between Israel and Syria was constructed after repeated violent breaches of the old one in 2011. Failing to mention that all four of the Druze villages in the Golan have run their own local councils for decades, she closes:
“But the Golan Druze are determined to maintain their identity and govern themselves. Ein Kinya – the smallest and most beautiful of the Druze villages – has its own local council. Numbers are steadily increasing and they are building more homes. Two Christian families live in their midst. The young Druze women I see appear free from inhibition, dressed in hot pants, ripped jeans and tight tops; strong and equal to their men. Abu Amin’s generation still treasures memories of Damascus but the Golan’s younger Druze – deprived of such cherished dreams – have found their own uniquely non-political vision of their future. Key to the Druze faith is reincarnation of souls – male to male, female to female – always into a newborn child. They simply believe they will be reincarnated in their next lives into the right part of Syria.”
Which exactly is the “right” part of Syria today for members of the Druze minority, Darke does not reveal.
Diana Darke’s account is not only trite, one-dimensional and in parts inaccurate – it is clearly rooted in the echo-chamber of a political ideology which – despite the geopolitical tremors which have taken place in Syria in the last five years – has not changed since she wrote a similarly themed piece for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign over three years ago. Clearly the safety and welfare of the Druze residents of the Golan Heights spared the turmoil and violence in Syria is far less important to Darke and her fellow travellers than political point scoring on “settlements” and “international law”.
This of course is far from the first time that audiences have seen the BBC amplifying the jaded narrative which promotes the notion that all 20,000 Golan Druze homogeneously aspire to return to live under Syrian control. In the five years of the Syrian civil war, however, that narrative has unravelled and a curious journalist free from the baggage of a political agenda could find much more interesting, unexpected and complex stories to report from the foothills of Mount Hermon.