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SYRIA, ISRAEL: Facebook sparks new conflict over Golan Heights

September 18, 2009 |  9:34 am

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Facebook users in the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria by Israel in a 1967 war, now find themselves at the center of a new, virtual skirmish over the disputed territory.

Until recently, Facebook users in Golan towns were listed as living in Syria, prompting more than 2,600 Israelis to form a group called "Facebook, Golan residents live in Israel, not Syria." Now, users are allowed to choose whether their hometown is listed as part of Israel or Syria.

Honest Reporting, the Jerusalem-based organization behind the campaign, wrote on the group's page that "it is not for Facebook to decide the national origin of Golan residents."

Alex Morgalin, the creator of the group, wrote in an e-mail to The Times that the petition was not motivated by political considerations.

"We do not take a position on the future of the Golan," he wrote. "What we are concerned with is the present -- that people who identify as Israelis, living under Israeli law, were not allowed to identify themselves that way."

Israeli settlers and mostly-Druze Syrian Arabs live side by side in the fertile hills of the Golan, which is also home to a vital water source, Lake Tiberias. Arab students are allowed to return to Syria for their university studies, but once they graduate they must choose between staying in Syria forever or returning to the Golan. This tenuous arrangement has allowed Arabs living in the Golan to maintain their connection with Syria, but forces students to choose between their families and their homeland.

Dr. Omar Abu Jabal, the administrator of the Facebook group Golan Heights-Syria, sees the new policy as a negative measure that will only compound Syrian Golan residents' identity crisis.

"I know that its a big conflict that we live, especially young people ... live an inner conflict [about] what to choose, a big question that is hard to answer: Am I Syrian or Israeli?" he wrote in a message to The Times. "[This policy is] a step that we refuse, because the Golan is a part of Syria and has been and will stay forever."

Facebook is intermittently blocked in Syria, but the social networking site remains extremely popular.

This is not the first time Facebook has been dragged into geopolitical conflicts, as the tech blog VentureBeat points out. They face similar decisions over disputed lands such as Kashmir and Taiwan, and will likely face more as the site expands globally.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Jewish settlers and Syrian Arabs live side by side in the disputed Golan Heights. Credit: Yehuda Raizner / AFP

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