by Muna Dajani
Date: Friday 24 January 2020. Location: Sultan al-Atrash’s square in Majdal Shams, the ‘capital’ of the five remaining Syrian villages in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights (oSGH). Thousands of Jawlanis (Arabic for people of the Golan Heights) fill up the square: young and old, religious figures, men and women. The Golan Youth Movement called the demonstration to protest a proposed large-scale wind turbine farm planned in the heart of the agricultural lands of the community. A few days following this event, the Israeli National Committee of Planning and Infrastructure approved the project, giving the green light for Energix Renewable Energies, an Israeli public company, to commence work.
The Jawlanis have a long history (predating the modern Syrian state) of resistance, autonomy, and self-governance. Sultan al-Atrash, a prominent Syrian nationalist leader, led the revolt against the French colonial mandate and maintained high levels of political autonomy under Syrian state. After 1967, Jawlanis’ rejected the Israeli occupation of their land, and collectively organised to protest the de-facto unilateral annexation by Israel in 1982. Through calculated acts of opposition and disobedience, the six-month strike that the Jawlanis embarked on in 1982 was a landmark event in the Jawlani (and wider Palestinian and Arab) collective memory. Mobilising relentlessly against Israel’s destruction of their social-environmental world, the Jawlanis are currently fighting settler colonialism under the guise of green energy development. The wind turbine farm (referred to as ‘the project’ hereinafter) reflects a systematic trend by Israel to grab Syrian natural resources in the oSGH and threaten the rootedness of the Jawlanis in their land.
This essay reveals the colonial nature of the project and its place in the long legacy of Israel’s denial of the Jawlani community’s sovereignty and their right to resourcehood. It casts decades-long opposition to settler-colonial policies as a struggle over identity and belonging to the land. A new generation of Jawlani activists, spearheading the current protests, is sustaining that tradition of resistance.
Denial of Sovereignty and the Right to Resourcehood
The occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967 has been referred to as a forgotten occupation. With 340 villages, towns, and farms destroyed, most of the population (130,000) expelled and displaced, the oSGH represents a systematic settler colonial quest for the elimination of the local population. Today, the remaining Syrian population of 26,000 live in the five remaining villages of the region’s north and are restricted to five percent of the total area of the oSGH, while an equal number of illegal Israeli settlers live in and control 95 percent of the land.
Israel’s settler colonial endeavour extends further than its quest to eliminate the native and control land, but also systematically denies indigenous claims to land and resources, causing irreversible damage to people and their lived geography. Indigenous people find themselves in a constant struggle over identity and belonging under a regime whose sole purpose and drive is to eliminate, misconfigure and intentionally destroy ecosystems of indigenous lives and livelihoods. The quest for land is a premise of settler-colonial states but is only the foundation for the extraction of other natural resources (such as water, gas, and wind), compounded by misrecognition and disregard of the right to self-determination and belonging of the indigenous population.
The exploitation of water resources has been at the epicentre of Israeli settler colonial policy and has systematically transformed the hydrogeography of the oSGH and Palestine. While Israel has invested heavily in constructing artificial lakes, dams, and reservoirs in the illegal settlements, it has also heavily restricted the Jawlanis from accessing and utilising their local water sources. Following decades of Jawlani collective efforts to establish water cooperatives to claim rights to water, Jawlanis pay higher prices than Israeli settlers for water, and receive a fourth of what settlers receive in terms of water quotas. Gas and oil exploration has been on the rise since 2010. As an occupying power, Israel’s resource exploration contravenes the relevant sections of international law that mandate the safeguarding and development of resources for the benefit of occupied communities. Land zoning and planning restrictions, illegal settlement tourism, high economic dependency and monopolising agricultural firms have all been issues that Jawlanis have battled on a daily basis.
Moreover, Jawlanis have undergone decades of disenfranchisement and systematic misrecognition enacted by the imposition of a forced citizenship, which they refused and fought against in a six months strike in 1982. In retaliation, Israel issued them with travel documents (known as laissez-passer) which show their nationality as ‘undefined.’ Misrecognition is also enacted by the state in the field of education, for example, where curriculum development is fully controlled by the state, eroding Arab and Syrian identity and culture while bolstering a Druze identity and culture as a strategy of weakening the Jawlani identity.
Facing an imminent threat to their existence on the land and the deliberate misrecognition of their identity, Jawlanis have developed distinctive agricultural practices and fought for collective water and land rights for decades. Protecting land and natural resources has become an act of identity reclamation, where a distinctive right to resourcehood and group sovereignty is exercised. Consequently, Jawlani mobilisations against the project are better understood not as a mere rejection of green energy projects, or a romanticised view of indigenous communities and their land but a conscious calculated act of asserting group sovereignty under precarious conditions of settler-colonial dispossession.
Green Energy Colonialism: Winds of Dispossession
A typical sign [‘Danger, Mines!’] is visible everywhere in the oSGH. Scattered across the vast landscape, and even within the Jawlani villages, mines have killed and maimed many Jawlanis who had the misfortune of coming into contact with them. Today, Jawlanis have designed a ‘Danger, Turbines’ sign, equating the threat of mines to the threat of wind turbines planned on the last remaining Jawlani village lands. Similar to mines, the wind turbines represent irreversible damage to livelihoods, landscapes, and the health of humans and the environment.
Since 2009, the company Energix has been promoting the establishment of a large-scale wind turbine farm in the Northern Golan Heights, with close coordination and support from the Israeli government. The project has been stalled because of a number of challenges, chief among which has been objections from the military. With the military approval of the project granted in 2019, the announcement has been made that the project will commence with the installation of up to thirty-two large turbines, each two hundred meters high. Situated only one kilometre away from the villages of Majdal Shams, Mas’ada, and Buq’ata, the farm is to be constructed in the heart of the agricultural lands (see the map below) of the destroyed village of S’heita and would heavily restrict plans the villages’ future growth. Taking advantage of the drop in profitability of the agricultural production in the oSGH, Energix hired local mediators to entice landowners to lease their land through temptation or threats. Due to decades of economic disenfranchisement and the financial allure of such a proposition, a handful of landowners signed contracts with the company. Al-Marsad, a human rights organisation in the oSGH and a legal advocate for its residents, began to expose how the project forms part of Israel’s settler-colonial policy and violates international law and basic human rights of a community under military rule. Following the publication of an extensive legal and investigative report on the project as well as al-Marsad’s submission of objections against Energix in 2019, Energix filed a lawsuit against them based on the accusation of defamation and even for violations of the controversial anti-BDS law. As Wael Tarabieh, the co-founder of al-Marsad, asserts, these legal battles have ramifications not only on them and the wind turbine project but on human rights organisations throughout Israel and the occupied territories.
The project is a calculated attempt by the Israeli state to bolster its image as a haven for green technology and innovation. The project would increase Israel’s renewable energy sources to reach seventeen percent by the year 2030, a commitment made by the state to meet global emissions reduction set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Contrary to its decades-long greenwashing campaign to brand itself as a green and eco-friendly ‘start-up’ nation, the Israeli state has one of the biggest per capita global ecological footprints with its heavy reliance on fossil fuels, particularly coal, for its energy consumption. This is further tarnished by its documented record of environmental rights violations and destruction in the occupied Palestinian (and Syrian) territory and its warfare-created pollution in the region. Israel’s green colonialism blatantly neglects the needs and interests of the Jawlanis and deprives them of their right to resourcehood in the name of green energy development.
‘So that Next Generations do not Hold Us Accountable’: Jawlani Mobilisation against the Winds of Dispossession
The Friday demonstration is an important milestone connecting the intergenerational struggle of the Jawlanis against settler colonialism in general and green colonialism in particular. The online page Golanianstory posted references to the 1982 strike to reflect on this act of resistance as a success model for the youth to follow. Continuity between the resistance of the past and the struggles of today has become more visible, emphasising that while settler colonialism as a structure continues, so do acts of resistance and strategies of opposition re-examined and updated by future generations.
Wesam Sharaf, a lawyer from Ein Quieniya village, writes how the project is an existential threat to the Jawlanis, equating it to Donald Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel or Israel’s (failed) attempt to impose municipal elections for the Syrian villages. While most of the Jawlani are university students or young professionals living in cities such as Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah, who see no current or future intention of being involved in agriculture as a source of income, their belief in protecting their land remains undiminished. A young protestor holds a sign stating that ‘In our lands, we plant trees, not turbines,’ emphasising the collective act of farming not just as an economic activity but an act of planting roots for next generations to exist and be present in the Jawlan. The popular campaign to oppose the wind turbine project, an online platform for a coalition of activists from the oSGH, expressed concern over the impacts of the project, as they see it directly threatening terraced apple and fruit orchards which the Jawlanis have worked tirelessly to develop and protect over decades. They express how it further entrenches the largely agricultural communities in further asymmetrical and unequal conditions of production, which they have endured for decades against state-sponsored and monopoly marketing firms.
For demonstrators, the wind turbines harvest destructive currents, in opposition to the subtle ‘wind that softly moves between the trees’ (see picture 1 below). The roots of the trees planted by the Jawlani are depicted as deep and expansive, in comparison to the artificial foundations of a turbine which farming and remaining on the land could easily dismantle (picture 2 below). Another sign expresses that ‘wind/air is the only remaining natural resource to be stolen’ (picture 3 below), stripping another natural element away from them. What the demonstration in Majdal Shams allows us to explore is how communities express their worldviews and connection to the land by invoking elements from it to claim rights to resources. It also exposes how certain infrastructures, in this case wind turbines, become artefacts to oppose and disrupt in order to protect their landscape and way of life.
The Fight for Environmental Justice Continues
Situating the oSGH in relation to other struggles of indigenous communities around the world allows us to explore how state-sanctioned green energy colonialism is replicated in places like Western Sahara and Mexico, where environmental injustice and extractivism is tied to political and socio-economic dispossession. Many communities, such as the Sahrawis, are mobilising against such ‘green’ energy projects, clearly demanding community-led projects which are pioneered and collectively owned and operated, thus employing a rights-based approach to renewable energy development. By enacting such an approach, indigenous people carry out self-determination practices that connect their livelihoods and identities to the natural environment and further strengthen their legal and popular fight against green colonialism and wider authoritarian and settler-colonial regimes.
In that light, al-Marsad continues its effort to expose the existential threat to the Jawlani way of life entailed by this project. Key to their activism is coalition-building with Arab and international human rights organisations to pressure Israel to adhere to international law and protect the Jawlani population and their fragile ecosystem. On the ground, social media remains a key platform for activist youth to inform the public about the project, and to maintain momentum for opposing Energix’s bid to commence work.
The struggle against the project is far from over for the Jawlanis and is likely to endure in light of the political instability in the region and Israel’s unabated expansionist plans of settlement building and natural resource exploitation. For the Jawlanis, today’s struggle is a continuation of an ongoing fight against settler colonial rule, one that will carry on from generation to the next until Jawlanis achieve environmental justice and their right to resourcehood and self-determination.
Follow Golan Story (golanianstory on FB and @Golanstory on Instagram) and Al Marsad (@GolanMarsad on twitter) for updates and reports on the project. Special thanks goes to Wael Tarabieh and Dr. Munir Fakhrelddin for providing guidance on this article, and for Ali Aweidat for providing the pictures of the demonstrations.
This article was originally published on Jadaliyya on 22 April 2020.