Wednesday, July 4, 2007

On the Golan Heights

We toured the Golan Heights, the sliver of strategically important Israeli-occupied Syrian territory. The experience is unique; I'll describe it as 'mili-tourism' -- the combination of organized tourism and active military operations on a hostile frontier. The picture of our son Eric posing with a group of Israeli soldiers gives a clue about the experience.
The heavily fortified frontier is hostile but oddly secure. When Israel first won the territory in 1967 virtually the entire local population fled (the only original inhabitants still around are a few Druze villagers).
Israel almost lost the territory in the last significant armed conflict -- the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Tourists are invited to pay a modest fee to see documentary films about that battle, where Israelis -- outnumbered 10 to one -- held on for three days before reserve reinforcements arrived. The Israelis were ill prepared for the war. The Syrians were armed with infa-red night vision; the Israelis had no night-fighting equipment or training (and of course the Syrians waged the battle overnight). As the fight raged, according to documentary film taken by an Israeli crew during the fight, the battle lines blurred and at one point Syrian and Israeli tankers were side-by side. Exhausted and desperately tired, an Israeli field commander told his superiors he would need to pull back -- his commander lied and said reinforcements would arrive in 15 minutes. They didn't, but that was long enough for the Syrians to pull back themselves. Later the commander reportedly said that he had learned when you are fighting to the limit (the Syrians, Israelis concede, fought bravely and effectively in 1973), if you think you are ready to give up, the other side is probably in the same shape, so just a little more determination can make the difference. This proved to be true in this situation.
Today, approximately 30,000 civilians live in the area. They have a thriving wine industry -- the vineyards located right on the frontier produce some of the world's best wine -- along with other agricultural industries including, oddly, beekeeping. (Our guide says beekeepers had trouble maintaining their hives elsewhere in Israel -- local thieves would steal the bees). Frankly, I was more afraid to open our van window for a live sample from the hooded beekeeper than standing at a forward Israeli position near the frontier.)
Now, the rights and complexity of the Syrian/Israeli conflict would fill several books. Tracing back to the 60s, the Syrians engaged in a water-diversion project that could, the Israelis claim, drained the Sea of Galilee. Israel bombed the Syrian dams. In the 1967 six-day war, Israel had no trouble scaling the heights. In 1973, after intially losing ground, the Israelis moved further inland to the point where they could shell Damascus, only accepting a cease-fire when -- their supply lines depleted -- they faced a new and fresh Iraqi army. In the disengagement agreement, Israel pulled back to the 67 lines, conceding as well a sliver of land that had housed the main Syrian settlement in the Golan. Syria rebuilt the town at another location; presumably holding the bombed out original community as a shrine of its own.
Syria has reportedly offered a land-for-peace deal with Israel; Israelis are rightfully skeptical; especially since Syria is actively supporting Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, (Hezbollah is defined as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Canada because it, in advocating Israel's destruction, uses suicide bombs on civilian targets) and is playing sovereignty games with a tiny sliver of land in the north called the Shebaa Farms. Recently both Syria and Israel reported they were beefing up their military presence in the Golan area and Israelis engaged in a major training exercise as we visited.
This makes the experience of ordering a fast food hamburger, purchasing some wine, and then touring a military bunker, one that I won't forget anytime soon.

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