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Syrian farmers in Golan Heights fear loss of livelihoods, ‘cultural life’ from Israeli wind farm plans

MARJ YAAFOURI, Israeli-occupied Golan Heights: Just downhill from the occupied Syrian villages of Majdal Shams and Masaada, there is a small valley filled with plots of cherry and apple trees.

A handful of the orchards reach upwards along the terraced hills that outline the Marj Yaafouri valley, overlooking the trees and a Druze shrine down below. They are owned by local Syrian farmers. Some of the farmers have been tending to these fields, in a spot known locally as Marj Yaafouri, since before the occupation began decades ago.

It’s been a cold, rainy winter, and the cherry trees are just beginning to bloom. Only a dozen or so workers are out walking the gravel paths that run through the trees.

These orchards form the last bit of farmland before a fortified border fence demarcates where the occupied Golan ends, and the ceasefire zone separating it from government-held Syria begins.

There is a kind of calm in the fields before the border fence. However, there are now signs that this sleepy little valley is the site of a growing controversy.

Israeli forces seized control of the Golan Heights, a hilly plateau wedged between Lebanon and southeastern Syria, during the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian residents were expelled deeper into Syria—most of them towards Damascus and Daraa. Tens of thousands stayed behind.

In the subsequent decades under occupation, more than 300 Syrian villages across the Golan were razed, vanishing from maps, to be replaced by settlements. Today, only five Syrian villages remain in the occupied Golan, among them nearby Majdal Shams and Masaada.

Israel’s seizure—and subsequent occupation—of the Golan was widely regarded as illegal under international law, including by the UN. Israeli leaders have long claimed the Golan is vital for its military defenses.

But the area is strategic in more ways than one.

For Israeli “green” energy companies, the Golan’s high, rolling hills are an ideal spot to construct wind turbines for generating renewable energy. Some 10 wind turbines, built in 1992, already dot one hill in the central Golan.

One of those companies, Energix, is already in the planning permission stages for yet another construction project that will see dozens of wind turbines—some of them 64-stories high— built on top of the Syrian-owned apple and cherry orchards.

According to Energix’s website, the so-called “ARAN” wind farm is set to create “hundreds of new job opportunities” and save the Israeli economy the equivalent of nearly $22 million per year through eco-friendly electricity generation.

Farmers and activists with land in Marj Yaafouri tell Syria Direct that the company offered them economic incentives—with compensation packages to the tune of $11,000 per year—in exchange for allowing construction of the turbines on their orchards.

But residents are now campaigning against the project, saying it is unfairly targeting Syrian farmers and could hurt the agricultural economy on the estimated five percent of the Golan’s territory that is still populated by Syrians.

“The whole environment here…will be changed because of these huge turbines,” says Emil Masoud, an activist from Masaadi who owns an apple and cherry orchard in Marj Yaafouri. He and other farmers say they have signed petitions against the project, and have worked together to create a mapping tool that shows which farms will be affected by the turbines.

“Agricultural income [from this land] will be affected directly,” Massoud says.

‘We can’t accept it’

Wassim*, an apple and cherry grower from the nearby Syrian village of Masaada, says people from Energix arrived at his orchard one day three years ago.

They came with an offer.

“[Energix] promised me 40,000 shekels [about $11,000] per year, [which would begin] as soon as they started working on the land,” the farmer tells Syria Direct.

The compensation package was attractive, Wassim admits, as he only makes a small income from his orchard.

“I work and pay for this land just to preserve it as mine,” he says. “[But] they told me that the wind turbines would be good, that I’d benefit from it economically. That it wouldn’t impact the farming, and there wouldn’t be any negative effects.”

Wassim agreed and signed a contract that, he says, would allow Energix to take up 600 square meters of his land to construct a turbine.

Wassim didn’t ask about the potential negative impacts—it wasn’t something that occurred to him. “The people working on the project only ever gave us a positive picture [of the wind farm].”

But Wassim says he later heard from neighbors and activists about the loud sounds emitted by wind turbines, as well as the sunlight flickering and ground temperature changes that the machines have been shown to cause in other places they have been built.

The turbine planned for his orchard would also loom over his neighbors’ farm plots, including those who hadn’t signed onto agreements with Energix.

The impact to the community as a whole appears to have led to a growing backlash among local farmers who haven’t signed on to the plans.

Criticism of the wind farm project also comes as international attention turns once more to the Golan Heights following US President Donald Trump’s proclamation last week recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the plateau. The US is the only foreign country to do so.

“We decided as the people of the Golan to turn against the wind turbines, that they can’t build them here on our land. We can’t accept it,” Wassim tells Syria Direct.

He says he is now hoping he can still cancel his contract.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm Wassim’s story.

Several Energix representatives either declined to comment or did not respond by time of publication.

An in-depth report published earlier this year by Syrian human rights NGO Al-Marsad—based in Majdal Shams—details similar accounts of local farmers approached by Energix and seemingly corralled into signing contracts.

Farmers who agreed to allow construction on their land “were given long contracts they could not easily understand and were told to sign,” according to the report. Those who did not initially agree told Al-Marsad they faced repeated phone calls and house visits, designed to push them into signing.

Energix says on its website that its facilities are “established in cooperation with local communities,” and that they are “empowering minorities.”

The site names the “Druze community” in the “north of the country” as among the groups benefiting from Energix projects. The vast majority of residents in the Golan’s remaining Syrian villages come from the Druze religious sect.

Nevertheless, three Syrian farmers who spoke to Syria Direct say they are now strongly opposed to the plan, ever since recent research came out about its potentially negative impacts.

Golan Heights: A wind energy powerhouse?

Fares Halabi, an elderly farmer from Masaada, is trimming his apple tree branches alone one recent afternoon. The small plot of land he works on now belongs to his sons, he says, whom he relies on to make ends meet.

His orchard has been in the family for decades, he says, since before 1967 saw Israeli forces seize the Golan.

At one far end of the apple plot is a one-room concrete house. Halabi has used the house to rest amid long days of tending to his rows of trees, when this valley was simply another region of Syria.

Now he’s worried this family apple orchard could be harmed by the planned wind farm.

“We heard that the turbines will impact our apple trees, that it disrupts the agriculture,” Halabi says.

Though he did not enter into any contract deal with Energix, Halabi worries that his own orchard’s proximity to the farmers who did could impact him.

“It’s something I can’t accept.”

It is unclear whether Syrian farmers and activists in the Marj Yaafouri area can halt the wind farm project.

The Israeli government is actively encouraging green energy projects—following the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, it announced its aim to have 10 percent of the country’s energy come from renewable sources.

By 2017, more than two dozen Israeli wind farm projects were in development, according to Al-Marsad. Nearly half of them were in the occupied Golan. The wind projects are being developed at the same time that other companies search for oil in the plateau.

ARAN and other wind energy projects also raise questions over the legality of Israel’s economic exploitation of occupied territory, activists say, particularly with the proposed location of the Energix turbines concentrated on what little remains of Syrian-owned land in the Golan.

Though Energix’s project has not yet broken ground, Syrian residents worry what the next stages could bring when it does.

For Syrians in the Golan, the orchards here “aren’t just a resource for making a living and money,” says artist Tarabieh, who works as an activist with Al-Marsad. “People spend half the year on their farms, in the houses that they’ve built there.”

“We have a cultural life in these farms.”

*Syria Direct has changed the name of this source to protect his identity.