Story by Idit Elnatan Photographs by Eddie Gerald
The story of the Golan Heights receives far less attention than the other areas occupied by the State of Israel. Unlike Gaza and the West Bank, there is no Palestinian population here, no burning issues of human rights, poverty, or nests of terror activities and the Jews who have settled here are not called “settlers.” This northern area, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967 as a valuable strategic territory, important for the security of Israel, and as an area which allows for control over water sources, has turned along the years into a land which has changed the Israeli tourist map and Israeli wine culture. So as far as many Israelis are concerned, there seems to be no problem at all in keeping these territories. From their perspective, this area is certifiably Jewish. The calm which has enveloped the border with Syria has been made possible by a ceasefire agreement not violated since 1974. Thus there is no apparent reason to discuss returning the territory.
But from time to time, tensions surface and slightly unsettle the Israeli repression. But from time to time, winds of war begin to blow through the area, reminding everyone that this volcanic plateau is on the verge of an explosion.
Early morning. We drive through the open ranges of Kibbutz El Rom, one of the firsts kibbutzes in the Golan Heights. The car, which has just come out of a wash, is quickly covered with yellowish dust. Not far from this point, a heavy heat wave has descended. But here, at more than 1000 meters up, strong winds blow, and the air is dry and cool. A fog descends on the area, and even the tall Mount Hermon is not visible beyond the mist.
Threatening reports again feature on the radio news, due to the tension over the northern border, following the penetration of an Israeli jet over Syrian skies. Syria has forcefully condemns the Israeli aggression and has threatens to respond in kind. Fiery voices are also heard in Iran, while Turkey demands explanations from Israel. Analysts attempt to explain the aim of Israel’s operation and to estimate Syria’s possible response. The Tel Aviv stock market sees shares fall in value.
The tension between Syria and Israel seems to be marking new peaks. But when we turn off the radio and switch off the engine, a deep silence prevails. It is difficult to believe that this is the same place which stirs so much noise in the media. The cows graze lazily between the large basalt stones, and turn to us with angry expressions. From their point of view, the only ones ruining their morning serenity is us. From afar, wild horses gallop freely in the wide volcanic plains. A wild atmosphere envelops this place. From every direction, long reddish apple orchards waiting for plucking and vines filled with black grapes a moment before the harvest are visible.
The supreme silence is only broken by the disturbing buzz of flies gathering near the carcass of an unlucky wild pig, the loser of a battle with a farmer defending his produce. Meetings between opposing interests ending in violence are not rare in the Golan Heights.
Up until the Six Day War (1967), the Golan Heights were in Syrian hands, and the area was used for military needs. From this vantage point, the Syrians routinely shelled Israeli villages in the Galilee and the Jordan Valley. During the Six Day War, Israel seized the area and installed a military administration to govern it. In 1973, the Syrians attempted to regain the area, but with no success. Eight years later, Israel officially annexed the Golan and Israeli civil law was applied to the area.
Since the ceasefire agreed in 1974, the calm on the Syrian-Israeli border has been kept, but the calm is tense. In this wild region, everyone attempts to move gently, because like the many landmines buried here, any mistake or misjudged step can cause a powerful explosion.
The tension level in this region reached new peaks following the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hizbullah last summer. Over a year has passed since then, but the winds of war continue to blow. Since the Golan has been conquered, the Syrians have demanded an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines as the condition for peace. During the years, former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak have proposed formulas for returning the Golan, but they were rejected by the then Syrian President, Hafez al Assad, who demanded nothing less than a full withdrawal, up to the last centimeter.
In Israel, this is a charged issue. A return of the Golan is perceived as a heavy price to pay. The area, conquered at first as a top strategic location, has become in the eyes of Israelis far more than that. Unlike Gaza and the West Bank, the Golan Heights have quickly become integrated as an Israeli territory in every way, especially due to the absence of a Palestinian population. The Golan Heights have been declared an area of national priority for settlement, and those who move there receive benefits, aid, and inducements which have made moving here especially worthwhile.
Kibbutzes, moshavs and community villages set the tone. New neighborhoods are continuously being built here despite the situation, and people from central Israel who wish to make a dream come true – cheaply – of a private home with large amount of land and a high standard of life come here to try their luck.
During 40 years in Israeli hands, this area has attracted highly motivated pioneers who developed the tourist branch and turned it into a leading attraction in the fields of beef and wine. Guesthouses and cottages have been built for tourists, and form an especially worthwhile business, as Israeli tourists arrive all year long to enjoy the cool air in the summer, and to ski in the winter. Close to 40 percent of Israeli beef originates in the Golan Heights, and the quality of pasture in the Golan is among the highest in Israel. Golan Heights Winery, the main winery in the area, has earned a high reputation around the world.
When it comes to the Golan Heights, both war and peace are seen as threats. Either way, the result could be withdrawal and an evacuation of residents. But somehow, local residents are not overly perturbed, and display apathy, and even scorn to such scenarios. Throughout the years, they have learned to become accustomed to the storm set off every time the issue is raised, but also to look with great satisfaction at the settling dust each time the storm passes. The transience of the occupation has long become a permanent situation. But nagging uncertainty surrounds the escapism. From the locals’ perspective, the status quo is permanent.
“I don’t think about it at all,” says Avshi Ferstman, a 40 year-old cowboy from the village of Had-Nes told me. “The way I see it, this is not something that is worth investing thought in,” he continued, though he looks disturbed as he inhaled a drag on his cigarette. He is not, however, worried by the situation, but by the Israeli army. Military forces passed through his pasture and he rushes to close the fence gates which the soldiers didn’t bother closing behind them. Every breach in the fence could mean a loss of cows and Avshi cannot afford that. “The army’s firing range crosses our pasture, so we are always in the middle of friction,” he explains. “Here they open a gate and do not shut it, there a tank passes through and drags a fence along with it. We complain all the time, but there’s no one there to talk to. That’s why we must have our finger on the pulse at all times.”
With the cowboy hat shading his face and bleeding scratches in his hands caused by the wire fencing, it is difficult to believe that Avshi has an urban childhood in one of the large cities of central Israel. “As a child I loved westerns. Every Purim, I would dress up as a cowboy and dreamt of being a real cowboy one day,” he says. The Golan Heights, with its plentiful pastures, is the ideal location for that.
But it’s not easy to be a cowboy in the Golan. Riding on his horse, Avshi tells us about the years of struggle against jackals and wolves that attack calves, and the unpleasant meetings with cattle thieves. The gun thrust in his belt, it turns out, is not for display only.
We continue on our path. Signs warning us of landmines, the outcome of both Syrian and Israeli labors, accompany us throughout the entire journey. Many war memorials are spread out in the area, and tell war stories while keeping alive the memories of battles with the enemy over the border. But the military is not only a past in the Golan Heights, but also the present, probably the future. Convoys of tank carriers now drive through the roads. In abandoned army posts, which have served as vantage points for tourists for years, we see freshly placed barbed wire and sandbags. Along the way, anti-tank trenches have been dug. Since the war last summer, the military has held nonstop drills. Preparations for the next war can be seen on the ground.
But Arnon Harel, PR manager for Golan Heights Wineries, is unfazed. “This is normal,” he told me as we walked through the gigantic stainless steel instruments of the winery. “The army has always trained, and will always conduct drills here. This is nothing new. We are used to hearing explosions at night here,” he told me with stoic calm.
Golan Heights Wineries is a local success story. The cool climate, considerable height, and basalt ground allow for the growing of quality grapevines, and setting up a winery here is only natural. In its 24 years of existence, the winery has achieved a glowing success. The winery’s brands, Yarden, Gamla and Golan have earned themselves a name not only in Israel, but around the world. Golan Heights Winery revolutionized winemaking in Israel, as this is the first winery which began to produce quality kosher wine. Until then, Jews in Israel and the Diaspora made due with low quality kosher wine, but Golan Heights Winery found a way to combine quality with kosher, and became Israel’s number one wine exporter.
With great satisfaction, Harel enumerates the international prizes his wine has received, including important wine competitions such as Vinexpo in France. But even in this hedonistic environment, we cannot fail to continue to discuss the situation. Harel’s father, Yehuda Harel, was one of the senior members of The Third Way political party, established in 1996 due to the Labor party’s willingness to evacuate the Golan as part of a peace deal with Syria. Today, that scenario seems far off. The cars with their popular sticker, which reads "The nation is with the Golan" are long gone from the roads. The party hasn’t existed in years. Peace with Syria has never seemed further away. The level of mutual trust is at an all time low. Harel junior completely doubts that there are viable prospects for reaching a peace deal with Syria today and withdrawing from the Golan. But he does not at all doubt the possibility of war activity. “There are many fuel vapors in the air over the Golan,” he says.
In the evening, we search for some nightlife in Qatzrin, the Golan’s capital. The Meat-Shos meat restaurant is almost completely deserted. The newly set up Golan brewery is closed for a private event, and the Savta (Hebrew for grandmother) pub is only open at certain hours. Named after the nearby ancient Talmudic Jewish village, Qatzrin has been designated a city, but the small and snoozing community has not succeeded in reaching a population level higher than 7,000.
Within the Golan Heights, some 1,160 square kilometres, live 17,000 Jewish residents, and similar number of Druze residents concentrated in four towns, the largest of which is Majdal Shams. Over 70,000 Syrian citizens, including Druze, Circassians and Allawites escaped or were evicted by the IDF during the 1967 war and after it.
The Druze who remained here consider themselves Syrian citizens loyal to Damascus, but Israel does not recognize their citizenship. “We don’t know who we are,” says Khaled Abu Arar, a 20 year-old man from Majdal Shams and displays his identity card in which the citizenship field is absent. Unlike the other Druze who live across the country as Israeli citizens and who serve as soldiers of the Israeli army, the Golan’s Druze have rejected the Israeli citizenship offered to them by the government, maybe out of loyalty to Syria, maybe out of fear that one day the Golan will be returned and they will be considered traitors.
The Israeli occupation has left Druze families separated across two sides of the border and the fact that they cannot visit their families in Syria ignites much anger among them. “The Shouting Hill” in which family members from Israel and Syria stand and shout across to one another has turned into a symbol of their struggle to unite their families, and many protests have been held here against the lack of solution for their situation. Israel forbids crossings over the border, but allows Druze who wish to study in Syrian universities to cross the border, as well as apple traders. Druze brides married to husbands over the border receive a one-way pass. The brides have no way back and can never return to Israel to see their families.
Israel also allows for Druze clerics to cross the border for a pilgrimage to the gravesite of the prophet Habil, located some 45 kilometers west of Damascus. The pilgrimage is traditionally carried out by the Druze on the first Friday of each September.
We reach the annual event on the border standpoint – the Quneitra Crossing – and watch the long convoys of buses carrying 530 religious clerics to the border. They descend from the bus one after the other, and stand in a long line, each with a traditional religious look – a large moustache, shaved head, rounded white hat and a black robe. The atmosphere is festive. UN staff and IDF soldiers oversee the crossing. Perfect order is kept. It seems no one has any intention of spoiling the moment. Other than Ali Mari, from Majdal Shams, who came to make a little noise. Highly familiar with the press value of events of this type, Ali arrives in a suit and tie, giving interviews to the press, posing to whoever who asks. All for one purpose – to protest the family reunification issue. “It’s already been 40 years since I’ve seen my family. Why? Why?” he asks in pain. “After all, you are Jews. You should understand situations like these,” he cries out vehemently over and over to the soldiers and cameras.
While the Druze here apparently remain loyal to Syria, the new generation is already drifting far away. They have distanced themselves from religion despite their parents’ beliefs, and youths on the Druze street in the Golan look totally secular. At the center of the community, near the large memorial of Sultan al-Atrash who led the Druze revolt against the French occupation in 1925, young guys can be seen with spiky hairstyles and earrings, while girls can be seen in tight jeans driving freely in cars. The religious may be seeking modesty, but the youths are living in a completely different era. The age of marriage has risen recognizably, while alcohol is freely drunk here. Khaled dreams of setting up a bar in Majdal Shams, to shake up the night life a little. Today, for a proper nightlife, he is heading all the way to Tel Aviv’s nightclubs. Haifa’s bars, which are closer, bore him. It seems he is completely connected to the Israeli experience. When I ask him what he will do if one day the Golan is returned, he shrugs. “I’ll run away. I have nothing to do there. It may seem that I am a traitor, but I wasn’t born in Syria. I was born here.” On the other hand, Khaled is not considering applying for an Israeli ID card. It seems a life without classifications is more comfortable for him.
Recently, guesthouses for tourists have opened in Majdal Shams. The community is situated in an attractive location, near Mount Hermon, Israel’s sole ski resort, and many of the community’s residence are excellent skiers who work as ski instructors at the resort. The season usually kicks off in January, and Israelis, who are not used to snow, flock to the area in their masses. Traffic jams during ski season stretch back many kilometers and the place becomes tiresomely crowded.
Now, however, the Hermon Mountain is silent. It is the end of summer, and there are no sign of snow. Even the white mountain peak is bald now. The mountain is split between Israel and Syria, and forms the highest point in Israel, some 2,200 meters above sea level. An IDF post is situated in the upper section of the mountain, and its excellent vantage point allows for a view deep into Syrian territory. It has earned a nickname in Israel as “the country’s eyes.”
We make our way up the mountain in a cable car. Strong winds blow around us. There are those who fantasize that one day winds of change will allow for a new reality in which an international ski pass can be purchased for use in the Syrian Hermon.
On the radio, a humorous conversation takes place between Israeli presenters who have called the Meridian Hotel in Damascus. They ask the Syrian clerk whether there are fears of war between Israel and Syria. The Syrian clerk replies without hesitation that all is quiet and there are no concerns. When they identify themselves as Israelis and try to book a room in the Syrian hotel, the clerk immediately hangs up. The winds continue to brush against my ears. Soon, autumn will arrive.
Golan Heights October 2006