Under the gaze of an Israeli tank, Syrian bulldozers slice through rocky terrain to build roads just inside a ceasefire line separating the occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria.Apartment blocks will follow for thousands of refugees on land facing their hilltop village of Adnanieh, which was lost to Israel in battle 40 years ago along with the rest of the Golan, a fertile plateau south of Damascus.
More than 1,000 flats for refugees from Adnanieh are planned, and infrastructure is being laid out for housing schemes facing other occupied villages, government engineer Hilal Ghaeb told Reuters.
â€œThese projects are a message to Israel. The refugees will no longer be scattered in slums and camps all around Syria. Soon they will live here and stare right at their Israeli occupiers,â€ Ghaeb said.
The Golan is at the focus of Syriaâ€™s participation in the US sponsored peace conference being held in Annapolis, Maryland.
President Bashar Al Assad agreed to send a delegation only after receiving a modified copy of the agenda with a session on restarting Syrian-Israeli peace talks, which collapsed in 2000 over the Golan.
Pro-US Arab governments have put pressure on Damascus to join them at Annapolis. But Syrian officials had made it clear they expect the conference to make little progress towards resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Hafez Assad, Syriaâ€™s late president, refused an Israeli offer seven years ago to withdraw from most of the Golan without giving Syria control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The elder Assad told then US President Bill Clinton that he used to swim in the lake before Israel occupied the Golan.
Bashar has stuck by the landmark laid by his father – full Israeli withdrawal in return for peace.
â€œA peace deal is only possible if we regain our full rights and not sell out,â€ Assad told a Tunisian newspaper last month.
â€œThey [Israel] have heard this in the 1990s and they will hear it now – complete rights and sovereignty on this land and nothing less.â€
After decades of neglect, Syria is pouring money into services in frontline Golan territory to draw back residents – and help raise the profile of an issue it wants back on the international agenda.
A theatre hall is being built further east from the ceasefire line. Workers occasionally run into mines or unexploded missiles, and United Nations peacekeepers are called to dismantle them.
The government has also launched a media campaign to highlight the Golanâ€™s richness in water and wildlife, and the fact that thousands of Syrians under occupation have refused Israeli citizenship.
This coincided with a renewed Syrian diplomatic push to regain the plateau, following international pressure that forced the Baathist government to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 after a 29-year presence.
Among Golan refugees, who number 600,000, counting their descendants, Annapolis meant little.
â€œIsrael is feeling very comfortable with US support higher than ever and the Arabs in shambles. I look daily across this line and see Israeli settlers cultivating more of our land,â€ Hassan Ibrahim said.
An Israeli warplane flies overhead and a tractor driven by an Israeli settler ploughs the fertile land.
Syria launched a war in 1973 that failed to regain the Golan but it won back small parts of the plateau a year later according to a ceasefire agreement that has held firmly since.
The deal gave the Golanâ€™s capital Qunaitera back to Syria, but only after Israeli forces blew up the cityâ€™s houses and buildings. Today Qunaitera remains in rubble as evidence of what Hafez Assad called â€œIsraeli barbarityâ€.
Officials said there was no active plan to rebuild the city.