But after 40 years of Israeli rule, ties to Syria have faded. Now, many young people in the secretive Arab sect find themselves grappling with dual identities — too liberalized by their time in Israel to feel comfortable in autocratic Syria, but too loyal to their home country to embrace Israel.
"I'm Syrian ... but I don't know Syria," said Suleiman, a 23-year-old shopkeeper in Majdal Shams, a village nestled beneath Mount Hermon and wedged next to a barbed wire fence separating the plateau from Syria.
Although Suleiman has never been to Syria, he said he was scared by stories from friends permitted to study there.
"Here, there's TV, the Internet, democracy and freedom of thought. Those things aren't available in Syria," he said, asking that his last name not be used for fear his comment would be reported to Syrian authorities in Damascus.
Today, life in Majdal Shams isn't much different from that in nearby Israeli towns. Teenage boys with spiked hair hang out on the streets, and young women wear short skirts. Youths pepper conversations with Hebrew, and unmarried couples sometimes drink alcohol together — despite the Druse religion's ban on drinking and conservative Arab society's constraint against mixing of the sexes.
Even so, most here say they are Syrian, but feel alienated from the regime in Damascus. For many, their loyalty boils down to the Golan itself, and its villages.
"If the village was returned to Syria, I'd return," said Suleiman. "What happens to my village happens to me."
When Israel conquered the Golan, the Druse residents quickly adjusted to the new reality, learning Hebrew and developing personal and business relations with their Jewish neighbors.
In 1981, Israel officially annexed the Golan Heights, though the move was not recognized by the rest of the world. The government offered citizenship to the Druse, but most rejected it.
Israel and Syria have held two rounds of peace talks, and last week Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was reported to be considering renewed contacts. The past talks were stymied by Syria's demand that Israel commit to a Golan withdrawal as a first step, but the talks themselves signaled to the Druse that Israel was willing to give up the heights under the right conditions.
"They know that their political future is in Syria, but as long as they are under Israeli rule they want to be on good terms," Yitzhak Reiter, a professor of Middle East and Islamic history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said of the Druse. "They are very realistic."
This keen political sense has helped explain the Golan Druse's "dual culture." The Druse, historically a persecuted sect, tend to identify with the majority in each country where they dwell, while maintaining their own distinct identity, Reiter said. The Druse religion is a secretive offshoot of Islam.
Druse living in Israel proper are well integrated into society, having served as ministers, lawmakers and generals. Most serve in the army — even facing Druse brethren from Lebanon and Syria in battle.
In late February, a Druse lawmaker named Majalli Wahabi became Israel's first Arab president, even if only for a week. He took over the ceremonial post when the acting president, Dalia Itzik, traveled to the U.S.
The residents of the Golan, on the other hand, have tried to maintain their ties with Syria.
Since 1988, Israel has allowed Druse clerics to make annual religious pilgrimages to Syria.
Hundreds of students cross into Syria each year to study at Damascus University, where they are charged no tuition. Marriages are also arranged between brides and grooms living on opposite sides of the frontier. The most recent ceremony took place earlier this year.
However, Syrian brides are rarely — if ever — allowed to visit their families back home, a source of anxiety and anger for dozens of women.
Separated relatives traditionally congregate in the "Shouting Valley" outside Majdal Shams to communicate across the barbed wire using megaphones.
Druse farmers also are allowed to export some 11,000 tons of apples to Syria each year. The apple sale, which began two years ago as a humanitarian gesture to the Arab farmers, is the first kind of trade ever made between Syria and Israel.
These ties, however, have been largely symbolic, and many young Druse have been quietly relieved at the failure of previous Syrian-Israeli peace talks to go forward.
"My Syrian friends tell me I'm lucky I live under occupation," said Firas, a 25-year-old doctor who graduated from a Syrian university and vowed never to return. "I hated life there, the political regime, (the lack of) freedom, lies, hypocrisy."
The doctor, now unemployed, also asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution. As he talked, he stood near Majdal Shams' main square, dominated by a statue of Sultan Pasha Atrache, a legendary Druse warrior who led Syria's battle for independence from France.
Older Druse who resisted Israel's annexation of Golan lament the fraying loyalty of the young, in part blaming Syria for not doing enough for the people of the heights. Some complained Syria failed to push for the release of 15 Druse prisoners held by Israel, including two who have spent 22 years behind bars for blowing up an Israeli military base.
Syria says it has lobbied for the prisoners' freedom, but has no means to pressure Israel. "We don't have Israeli prisoners here to use as bargaining chips," Midhat Saleh, the Syrian official responsible for Golan affairs, told The Associated Press in Syria.
Hayat Abu Saleh, a 35-year-old from Majdal Shams, said the loosening of ties to Syria also could be blamed on Israel's influence on the young as the occupation persists.
"Israel teaches a different history, it's their point of view, and generation after generation, loyalty to Syria is becoming less," she said.
Picture: A Druse Arab man walks in the street in the village of Majdal Shams in the occupied Golan Heights near the border of Israel with Syria, Friday, June 1, 2007. The Druse of the Golan Heights once burned their Israeli identity cards to demonstrate loyalty to Syria and protest Israel's annexation of the mountain plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
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