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In Golan, residents wary of peace moves

The founders of this Jewish settlement a mile and a half from the Syrian border have a suggestion for anyone who thinks Israel should withdraw from the Golan Heights _ think again.

The kibbutz was founded in 1973 on the site of the former Syrian southern command. An old Syrian bunker offers a stunning view of the Sea of Galilee and several Jewish villages below. From 1948 until 1967, when Israel captured the Golan Heights in the Middle East war, Syrian gunners shelled Jewish towns from the high plateau. Many of the 12,000 Jewish residents who live on the Golan Heights say their presence ensures that will not happen again.

"There's no reason for Israel to open its throat to the knife," says Joel Sheinfeld, one of the founders of Kibbutz Kfar Haruv. "No one is willing to take that chance, and there's a consensus in Israel that this area should not be given back to the Syrians or any other potential enemy."

Indeed, a few months ago most Israelis could not conceive of a situation in which they might be willing to withdraw from part or all of the Golan Heights. Peace with Israel's strongest enemy, Syria, also seemed impossible.

But since Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was elected in June, Israel has been engaged in an intensive dialogue with Syria. Rabin has said that in exchange for full peace he is prepared for territorial compromise on the Golan.

Last month, as the current round of Middle East peace talks ended in Washington, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara said his country was prepared for "total peace for total withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories." Al-Shara was referring not only to the Golan Heights but to the West Bank and Gaza Strip _ areas Rabin has said he is not prepared to cede, at least in the near future. But the conciliatory tone between the two nations has many Israelis who live on the Golan concerned.

"Everybody is worried in their hearts," said Deganit Handel, the 28-year-old manager of Kibbutz Kfar Haruv. "But we try not to pass our worries on to our children because that makes normal life _ the idea of growing and building the place _ almost impossible."

The children themselves seem unaware of the possibility that they might have to leave their homes.

"We came here to build our homes on the Golan," a group of 4-year-olds sang recently. "We were born here and we will live here. That's how it was and how it will be. This is our house on the Golan . . . "

There is a precedent for trading land for peace. In 1979, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt and withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula. Those on the Golan say their situation is different. In 1981, Israel applied its law to the Golan Heights, essentially annexing it, something that was not done with Sinai. Those on the Golan also say the Sinai did not have the same strategic importance the Golan does.

Golan residents have embarked on a massive public relations campaign to try to convince the Israeli public to pressure the government not to allow a withdrawal. Thousands of residents have demonstrated in Jerusalem and several hundred walked the 200 miles from the Golan to Jerusalem. A petition campaign aims to gather a half-million signatures against territorial compromise.

So far, Israelis seem divided. A recent poll found that half of Israelis oppose any territorial compromise on the Golan. One-third would favor a limited withdrawal, and only 15 percent would be willing to trade a significant part or all of the Golan for peace.

But if Israelis become convinced that Syrian President Hafez Assad really wants peace, public opinion could change. Some people are already reconsidering.

"I think that for peace we have to give back some of the areas in the Golan," said Dan Pe'er, 19, a soldier serving in the Golan. "Even if it hurts to give back places where there was a war and people were killed, I think we have to do it. If we keep saying, "No, no, no,' nothing will ever move."

When Jewish settlers in the Sinai town of Yamit were forced to leave, they were given an average of $50,000 per capita. With that, many of them were able to buy spacious homes in Israel that they could not have afforded otherwise.

Golan settlers would also receive compensation, which could cost the government up to $1-billion. A few residents said they would not mind leaving if they were compensated, but most felt like Shmuel Naftali of the Golan Development Council.

"I didn't move here and raise three children here and build my life here in order to leave," he said. "My home is not for sale."