When Weam Amasha was released on October 18, 2011 in the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas, hundreds of Syrians from the occupied Golan Heights welcomed him with bellowing chants in support of the Syrian revolution. The euphoria that accompanied his release, however, would soon die down and be supplanted with hostility and even violence against him and his family because of his staunch opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Born in Buqa’ata, a village in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Amasha’s first arrest by Israeli occupation forces came when he was only 16 after he set fire to an Israeli police station. He was released after serving an 18-month sentence but was re-arrested shortly after his release while suffering wounds due to a landmine that exploded in his hand. Amasha was sentenced to 20 years in occupation prisons after he was convicted of membership in a resistance group that planned to capture Israeli occupation soldiers. In May of 2011, Amasha wrote a letter in solidarity with the Syrian revolution from his cell in Gilboa prison. He stated that he would go on a hunger strike in protest of the killings of unarmed protesters by the Syrian regime and in solidarity with protesters’ demands for freedom, dignity and a modern and civil country.
It was his outspoken and uncompromising support for the Syrian uprising that deprived him of the warmth and community support that typically overwhelms released political prisoners in the Golan.
“When I was released, I expected to be embraced by my community after long years of suffering behind Israeli bars, but instead, our home was attacked by regime supporters; they broke my father’s leg, assaulted my brothers. We were even boycotted,” Amasha told me. “It’s much more painful when your own people do this to you,” he added, heaving a tormented sigh.
Divided by the revolution
The small population in the occupied Golan has long been known for its strong unity and its tight-knitted, largely homogeneous social fabric. However, the Syrian revolution–which some regard as a Gulf-backed imperialist conspiracy–has markedly divided residents of the Golan. Regime supporters have held several large rallies pledging their loyalty to the regime and the Syrian Arab Army as well as expressing their unshakable faith in the promised reforms. On the other hand, anti-regime activists have been holding small weekly vigils to support the uprising and call for the downfall of the regime. This polarisation, Amasha says, is “an extension of the chasm we’re seeing in the Arab world in general. As patriarchal societies, we’re not fully prepared yet for radical changes brought up by youth.”
However, Amasha admits that the Golan has its own unique situation. Amasha affirms that although the people of the Golan are under Israeli occupation, they haven’t escaped the vigilant surveillance of the Palestine Branch–one of the most notorious intelligence branches in Syria.
“The Syrian regime has embedded its own agents in the Golan and their job is not to spy on Israeli occupation forces, but rather to spy on residents and file reports about any anti-regime activity,” he said. “This explains why, despite not being under its direct control, the barrier of fear hasn’t been broken here, especially for those who study in Syria or have family members there.”
Amasha added: “While the Syrian regime was committing the Hama massacre in 1982, the people in the Golan were collectively rising up against the Israeli occupation’s decision to annex the Golan Heights and the attempt to force Israeli citizenship on us. This popular mobilisation for freedom actually rankled the Syrian regime because it did not want any segment of the Syrian people to find their voices and perhaps inspire other Syrians. This is why it’s been important for Hafez and then his son to keep the Golan under the boots of the mukhabarat.”
A bulwark of resistance?
I asked Amasha to explain why so many prominent resistance activists in the Golan and Palestine, including former prisoners who spent decades in Israeli occupation jails, vehemently back the regime: “You obviously cannot question the patriotism and the ethics of these freedom fighters. They genuinely believe that this regime is part of the resistance axis, and overthrowing it is a massive blow to resistance.”
When I asked him whether he thinks that this regime is indeed a bulwark of resistance, he replied: “For the regime, supporting resistance is not a moral and principled stance, but rather a position based on interests. The regime monopolised the idea of resistance and used it to subjugate and maintain control over the Syrian people, on the one hand, and as a bargaining chip in international arenas, on the other hand. If the Syrian regime was principled about its support for resistance,” Amasha wonders, “why did it disperse by force pro-Palestinian protests in Damascus during the Second Intifada? Why did regime forces attack demonstrators against the war on Iraq? The history of this regime is full of massacres against Palestinian resistance movements in Lebanon, but not once has it come close to firing a bullet at the Israeli occupation army since 1973.”
“Freedom cannot be compromised”
Amasha’s message to resistance activists who insist on siding with the Syrian regime against what he describes as the “popular revolution in Syria” is clear: “You cannot oppose a foreign occupier but accept the oppression of a local tyrant. Freedom cannot be compromised and divided”.