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Occupied Golan: crossing point opened for pilgrims

08-09-2008 Feature

In the first of a series of journeys due to take place over the coming month, 400 Druze pilgrims living in the Israeli-occupied Golan have crossed into Syria proper with the help of the ICRC.

" First and foremost we are going to pray, " said 62-year-old Mohammed Said Al Kadamau, one of the pilgrims, before setting off on his journey. Every year for the past five years he has taken part in a religious ceremony south of Damascus honouring the Druze prophet Habil. " I am very happy to go. Habil is our most important prophet, " he said.

 Closed crossing point  

  ©ICRC/H. Kvam    
The first group of pilgrims arrive at Kuneitra crossing point.    
    The Kuneitra crossing point, in the middle of the separation zone between Israeli and Syrian checkpoints, is normally closed. It is only on very special occasions that the authorities on both sides agree to open it, and even then only certain people are allowed to pass through.

Asked if he would travel more often if the crossing point were open all the time, Mohammed broke into a big smile: " Oh yes, oh yes, " he said. " I would visit friends and family deep inside Syria. " On his current journey he would have almost no opportunity to see anyone other than fellow pilgrims. " I’ll be with other religious people, both from Syria and Lebanon, " he explained.

 A neutral intermediary  

The ICRC serves as a neutral intermediary between Israel and Syria to facilitate arrangements for crossings. From the Israeli authorities it receives and forwards to the Syrians lists of people who will be allowed through. It also distributes to the travelers documents signed by the Syrian and Israeli authorities.

" We are the go-between dealing with both countries and handling practical matters. It is very important that people be able to pass through the crossing point. On each side, the vast majority of people have close relatives living on the other side – sometimes even prospective marriage partners live on opposite sides. And students and pilgrims have to travel for study or religious purposes. Crossings are vital to maintain some semblance of normal life. That’s why this job is important to us, " said Marc Linning, who works for the ICRC in Israel and the occupied territories.

 Left behind  

  ©ICRC/H. Kvam    
An ICRC employee helps a lady carry her luggage through the no-man's-land at Kuneitra crossing point.    
    While the pilgrims authorized to cross into Syria proper wore smiles on their faces, others were left behind with tears in their eyes.

" I have not seen my parents for 11 years. I had hoped that since some people were given permission to go across, I would be as well, " said one woman to reporters on the Israeli side. She was not allowed through the crossing point since it was opened only to previously registered pilgrims.

 Family visits  

The closed crossing point has made it very difficult for people living in the Israeli-occupied Golan to visit or even contact their relatives living in Syria proper. The family visits once facilitated by the ICRC were halted by the authorities in 1992. The ICRC has made repeated attempts to have the visits resumed, so far to no avail.

In addition to facilitating the passage of the Druze pilgrims, over the coming month the ICRC will arrange for students on holiday with their families in the occupied Golan to return to Syria proper, and for a bride to be allowed through the crossing to marry her future husband on the Syrian side.