October 16, 2015
The first thing a person notices when he drives up from the valley to the Golan Heights, is the presence of barb wires and warning signs cautioning visitors that there are live landmines in the vast fields on both sides of the roads. The visitor immediately senses that he is in a danger zone. The emptiness of the Golan Heights just adds to the visitor’s insecurity. The many military camps along the road, and military combat vehicles in combat posture here and there just add to the intimidation.
I wonder why the Golan Heights region is treated so differently from any other Israeli territory. The instinctive answer is that the Golan region is bordering Syria, one of Israel’s most dangerous enemies. However, the Israeli-Lebanese border, or the Israeli-Gaza border are not less threatening, yet, they look nothing like the Golan Heights.
In the period between 1948 and 1967, the Syrian army heavily fortified the Golan Heights. The Syrian artillery routinely shelled Israeli settlements in the valley below. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Except for few Druze villages in the northern Golan, the majority of Syrian citizens who lived on the Golan Heights fled to Syria after the war.
After the 1967 war, Israel began to settle the Golan. Syria tried to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Despite inflicting heavy losses on Israeli forces, the surprise assault was stopped. Both countries signed an armistice in 1974 and a UN observer force has been in place on the ceasefire line since 1974. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. The move was not recognised internationally. There are more than 30 Jewish settlements on the heights, with an estimated 20,000 settlers. There are some 20,000 Druze in the area. They were Syrian citizen prior to 1967. Many of them still see themselves as Syrian citizens.
The big push to settle the Golan Heights died out after the Yom Kipur War of 1973. Since then, the Golan is pretty much in a standstill. Most of the Israeli settlements efforts are concentrated in Judea. Much of it around Jerusalem. As pretty and rich with natural resources as the Golan Height region is, at a time when there is a shortage of houses in Israel, and the pressure of the US government on Israel, which effectively stopped the settlement in Judea, why not populating the Golan Heights?
The first time I was on the Golan Heights (other than a on high school day trip with friends) was as a young soldier, still a trainee in the Golani Brigade, shortly after we learned how to fight as a unit, we were sent to the Golan Heights to patrol and guard the border with Syria. These were the days when the Israeli army was still shaken by the surprising success of the Syrian army during the first days of the Yom Kippur war. It wasn’t a training exercise, it was the real deal: Our day started with first light when we patrolled by foot a section of the border, looking for signs of enemy soldiers and PLO terrorists, who may had crossed the border in the previous night. We spent the rest of the day on guard duty, observing the Syrian posts on the other side; wondering what kind of surprises they were preparing for us. They probably were thinking the same thing about us.
Few months later, I was on the Golan Heights again, this time as a trainee in the Golani non-commissioned officers school. We spent few days on the Golan, exercising the retaking the of Golan Heights after a surprise Syrian attack. The final stage of the exercise was taking the initiative and pushing the Syrians deep into their territory. I’ve no information to support it, but I have a feeling that similar exercises are still taking place today. It will be a long time before Israel will overcome the trauma of the Yom Kippur War.
As a soldier, I was on and off the Golan Heights for border guarding duties several time. I got to know the region quite well. It is the prettiest region in Israel; rich with water, wildlife, and breathtaking landscape.
The last time I was on the Golan Heights was just before I moved to the US. I was a reserve soldier and a student by then. Our unit guarded one of the most problematic sections of the Israeli-Lebanese border on Har Dov (Mount Dov). In this section of the border the main threat was PLO terrorists who were known to set up ambushes along the border.
After more than thirty years of being away, I returned to the Golan Heights few weeks ago with my family, this time as a tourist. Our destination was Har Bental (Mount Bental); a high observation point across from the Syrian town Quneitra. Har Bental is a popular tourist destination these days: It is the only place in the world where tourists can safely watch Assad and Rebels (ISIS) forces exchange artillery shells. There is some risk to it: At least once a month a stray artillery shell explodes on the Israeli side of the border. Israel usually retaliates with a single, or few, artillery shells to send a message. Curiosity is a strong motivator so we visited the remote observation point anyway.
I’m not sure if the civil war in Syria was the reason that there were only few visitors on the Golan Heights that day, or because the summer vacation was over and so did the the tourism season, but the Golan Heights seemed almost empty. I barely saw cars on the road. We weren’t the only tourists, on the Golan that day, but on the last day of the Sukkot holiday, when it was reported on the radio that this was the busiest day of the holiday season, that 150,000 Israelis visited tourist destinations, it was logical to assume that many more visitors should have been on the Golan, but they weren’t.
I’m not questioning the accuracy of the report on the radio, because as soon as we left the Golan Heights and entered the Galil region, we ran into the crowd. The long lines in front of the few open restaurants along the way, and the bumper to bumper slow drive home were two indicators that supported the statement that it was a busy tourism day in Israel.
While on the Golan Heights, we drove to the Memorial of the tank battalion 77 (OZ). The battalion stopped the Syrian attack in the northern Golan during the Yom Kippur war in a one of the most courageous and bloodiest battles of the war. We came there to pay our respect to the soldiers who paid with their lives to defend us. The memorial is located a short distance north of Har Bental.
The road to the memorial is narrow with minimal shoulders. There are minefields on both sides of the road. A small fence with caution signs alerts travelers to the presence of the live mines along the road. I left the cellphone in the car when we were on Har Bental. It overheated and didn’t work, so I didn’t have a GPS to guide me. There were no signs to the memorial. Eventually I took a wrong turn and ended up in a deserted area very close to the Syrian border. I had to turn around, but it wasn’t easy; I tried to stay on the asphalt as I was making an about face. Instead of a three point turn I did something like forty point turn.
I wondered why the minefield was there at all. Then it hit me; the entire Golan Heights region hasn’t changed since the days I was a young soldier after the Yom Kippur War. It was still a huge military zone; a land buffer designed to defend Israel from a surprise attack.
Attack by whom?
The Syrian army of 1973 does not exist anymore. Syria is not a country anymore. It will not pose a bigger threat to Israel than Lebanon is for many years to come, if ever. Yet, the entire Golan Heights region is pretty much off limit. It is covered by many thousands of landmines (according to the caution signs along the roads).
The Golan Heights region is frozen in time and ready to be used in one of two ways when the time comes:
- Forty-two years after the Yom Kippur war, when there is no significant threat from Syria, it is still considered a military buffer zone. It makes me wonder what Israel would have looked like, if the same rules were applied in the northern Galilee. What would Zefat, Nahariya, or Metula would have looked like if the northern Galilee would have been covered with landmines and fences?
- It is also possible that the Golan region is kept mostly empty as a potential negotiation chip in futuristic peace talks with Syria. It makes me wonder, with whom exactly Israel will be negotiating such peace, and who in Syria has the right to claim this region? Afterall, the country is disintegrated into three or four independent statehoods, founded on ethnic and religious affiliation, which none of them has any historical right the Golan Heights.
The time has come to remove the barb wires, to clear the landmines, and to open the land to more Israeli settlements. It’s time to convert words to actions and give a real meaning to the annexation of the Golan Heights from 1981. It is time to make the Golan look like the Galil.
Battalion 77 (OZ) Memorial
Observation into Syria from Har (Mount) Bental