“You’re going to love the Heights,” Oshri tells me.
“On a clear day, you can see all the way to Iraq.”
Oshri and I met earlier that night at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My study abroad group had arranged to visit the University and meet some of the students. Afterwards, the Israeli students invited us out to a bar in West Jerusalem. Alcohol is against the rules of our program. This leaves me in the rather awkward position of sipping a Coke while Oshri downs beers. But I try not to let the awkwardness kill the conversation. I tell him that tomorrow my group is taking a bus trip to the Golan Heights. His eyes light up, and he starts to talk excitedly about the green hills, the resorts and the ski slopes on the Heights.
Most of what he says I forget. After all, we’re only going to be there for one afternoon, but the bit about Iraq makes me irrationally excited to scale the Heights. I could see Iraq tomorrow! As if I’d be able to tell. As if at the border the Allies arbitrarily created between Syria and Iraq, there’s a bright red line cutting through the desert, perhaps with a giant sign that says, “Here ends the 1920 French mandate. Here begins the 1920 British mandate.” Still–“all the way to Iraq.” If it’s true, it’s quite something.
The Golan Heights are a green plateau northeast of the Sea of Galilee. The Heights cover only 460 square miles–less than a third of the area of Rhode Island–but as H.H. Munro might say, they produce more history than can be consumed locally.
The Heights are technically a part of Syria, and were controlled by Syria until 1967. After Israel’s 1948 war of independence, Israel signed truces, but not peace treaties, with its Arab neighbors, including Syria. For the next two decades, the Syrians regularly used the Heights as a base for shelling Israeli farms in the valleys below, near the Sea of Galilee. Israel responded by bombing Syrian bases and downing Syrian planes. Eventually, these clashes helped to trigger the 1967 Six-Day War, which set the stage for Israel’s 42-year (and counting) occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In that same war, Israel conquered the Golan Heights, nearly by accident. In the chaos of the war (which Israel did not plan on but found itself winning very quickly), Israeli generals weren’t quite sure which Arab lands to conquer. With the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and, oddly enough, the Labor Minister sending contradictory orders to the commanders on the northern front, Israeli forces charged haphazardly into the Heights, sending Syrian civilians fleeing. Syria tried and failed to take the Heights back in the Yom Kippur War seven years later. In 1981, Israel officially annexed the Heights, but no other country recognizes the annexation. Syria continues to demand the return of the Heights.
In the morning, we board our trusty tour bus for the trip. We drive through Arab East Jerusalem into the West Bank, past Jericho, down into the Jordan River Valley, then north along the Jordan River. This is occupied territory, but I don’t feel unsafe or uneasy. There aren’t many towns or people this way, only the dry, desolate Judean foothills. We re-enter Israel proper at a military checkpoint along the highway, the only sign so far on today’s trip that things are anything but peachy in the Holy Land.
As we drive through northern Israel, the land becomes greener. Israeli irrigation from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee makes for some unnatural sights. Giant palm orchards and, to my amazement, bountiful cornfields, grow alongside the giant brown desert bluffs to the west.
The trip to the Heights is short–only two hours from Jerusalem–so we make only one rest stop. I’m not sure what to make of the place where we stop. It’s part rest area–restrooms, picnic tables, and parking spaces–part camel farm, and part war museum.
There hasn’t been a war in the Heights for 36 years, but signs of the conflict are everywhere.
Three old Jordanian tanks, leftovers from the 1948 war, are parked at the edges of the parking lot. Half of our group spends their free time feeding the camels, the other half, playing on the abandoned tanks.
The rest stop is very close to the Jordan River, now the internationally recognized border between Jordan and Israel. If the Jordan River were actually a river instead of the creek that desertification and irrigation have reduced it to, I’d be able to see it. Instead, I have to content myself with gazing at the Jordanian hills on the other side.
As our bus journey north through Israel continues, the tour guide points out the passenger-side window toward a hill. It is home to a Jordanian military outpost. I can make out earthworks and a three-story observation post on the hill. A giant flagpole thrusts the green, red, white, and black Jordanian flag at least six stories into the air–high enough to make the flag look like a baseball pennant. Israel and Jordan have been at peace since 1994, but still seeing an Arab military base just a footrace away makes me uneasy.
Before we reach the Heights, a dull gray wall of clouds descends on the land, threatening light rain. I might not be able to see Iraq after all.
Just south of the Sea of Galilee, we turn east and cross into the Heights, and I can see where they get their name. The flat land slopes sharply upward. Hills race up out of the ground toward the east, as if competing with each other to reach the top first. And then, we reach the plateau, and everything is suddenly flat again. The only sign that we have reached higher ground is that the horizon has drawn closer than before. I can just make out the tops of hills beyond the plateau. The rest of the world is blocked from sight.
There hasn’t been a war in the Heights for 36 years, but signs of the conflict are everywhere. Strange clumpings of rocks are littered throughout the untamed, unfarmed land. Eventually, I see enough of them to realize that they are decaying, decades-old fortifications built by soldiers in wars past.
We turn left, and suddenly find ourselves in the midst of an Israeli military convoy. Half a dozen jeeps drive in front and behind us. Eventually, they turn off the road into a base filled with more soldiers, jeeps, humvees, and tanks.
A short time later, we pass by an abandoned mosque. Its windows are long gone, and its walls are filled with huge, gaping holes, like someone drove a tank through it once or twice. For all I know, that’s what happened. More likely it was hit by bombs or tank shells during the war. The walls that are still standing are riddled with bullet holes, and covered in blue and white Hebrew graffiti.
The bus comes to a T in the road, and turns right. At the head of the intersection, a small plot of land has been roped off and covered with stones–brown stones on the outside, white in the center. On the white stones, three rusting tank cannons have been erected on top of a pedestal to form a pyramid. To the right, a flagpole flies the Star of David, waving at half-staff.
The bus continues on. We drive through an old Israeli roadblock. We pass by a hill with bright yellow signs ringing its base. The tour guide tells us that it is a still-active minefield.
Not all is the ruin of war. We pass by a row of giant wind turbines, collecting environmentally-friendly energy on the Heights.
The peacekeepers patrol a thin neutral zone that runs between Syria and the Golan Heights. Within that zone, a lifeless town sits quietly beneath the cloudy gloom.
We see a large vineyard, and cows grazing between old war fortifications. But I do not see any real signs of life. I know people live here. There are scores of Israeli towns and settlements in the Heights, plus towns where the remaining Druze and Muslim Arabs live. But along the route we take, they are invisible.
At last we reach our destination: Mount Bental, a mountain in a string of hills that rise above the flat plateau, marking the eastern edge of the Heights. Mt. Bental is ringed with anti-tank ditches, deep grooves cut into the land to slow the advance of enemy armor. Our tour bus ascends the mountain and parks near the summit, leaving us with a short walk to the top.
At the summit, I get the view I’ve been anticipating. The clouds remain, and Iraq is no doubt miles out of vision. The sights are fantastic nonetheless. From the summit, I can match individual clouds in the sky to the slowly moving shadows they cast on the ground. To the east and the west, the plateau stretches out as far as I can see. Finally, I get to see the towns of the Heights. To the south, hills rolls up out of the land like a rumple in a bed sheet. To the north, another mountain looms in the distance.
The tour guide calls us together and helps us fit political meaning to the physical landscape before us. The towns we see to the west are Israeli towns, some on the Golan Heights, some in the tiny strip of Israel proper that juts up in between Lebanon and the Heights. The farthest land we can see to the west lies in Lebanon itself.
Immediately to the east is Syria, the nation that Israel is still in a state of war with, and that still claims the Heights as its own. Less than a mile away, we can see a cluster of buildings that our tour guide identifies as a United Nations peacekeepers’ base. The peacekeepers patrol a thin neutral zone that runs between Syria and the Golan Heights. Within that zone, a lifeless town sits quietly beneath the cloudy gloom. Our tour guide tells us that it is Quneitrah, an abandoned Syrian town. The residents fled when the town was captured by Israel in 1967. Israel withdrew under the UN agreement that ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but by that point, it had been largely destroyed. No one lives there anymore.
The mountain to the north is Mount Hermon. In the 1973 war, a massive tank battle was fought between Israel and Syria in the expanse of land between Mount Bental and Mount Hermon, the expanse that I now gaze upon. Thousands of people died here.
Israel came closer to destruction in the 1973 war than any other. The Arabs stunned Israel by launching a combined attack on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Taken by surprise, Israel struggled to gain the upper hand. In three weeks, nearly 3,000 Israeli soldiers died. The Israeli Defense Minister suffered a near-nervous breakdown. After the surprise Syrian and Egyptian attacks, his aides found him incoherent, mumbling to himself about the “fall of the third temple.”
The Golan Heights is an Israeli finger sticking up in between Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, a first line of defense against Arab attack. At the summit of Mount Bental itself, the Israelis built a bunker into the ground–barbed wire, machine gun nests, underground tunnels–the works. Today, this bunker is a historical attraction. We get the chance to explore the underground tunnels and all the subterranean rooms they connect. On the walls of the underground barracks, a series of maps detail the troop movements through the Heights in the 1973 war. One of the underground rooms has a narrow window pointed toward Syria. I can imagine young Israeli soldiers standing at this window, watching Syrian tanks advance inexorably toward them.
Above ground, we race through the bunker’s trenches, and pose for pictures with the abandoned machine gun turrets. Some of us head to the nearby coffee shop, the “Kofi Annan” coffeehouse, for a drink. (In Hebrew, “kofi” means coffee, and “annan” means clouds. Visiting Israelis can enjoy coffee in the clouds and poke fun at the former UN secretary-general at the same time.) With the military outpost turned into a tourist attraction, the fear of war seems distant. Yet not a mile away, beyond the UN zone, lies the Syrian military. And Israel is not about to be caught off guard again. Half the customers in the Kofi Annan coffeehouse are Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. In an instant, I would guess, they could restore the bunker to its original purpose.
Something I never get used to in Israel is seeing soldiers younger than me wielding machine guns, prepared to kill. All Jewish Israeli men are required to serve in the military for three years once they turn eighteen; Jewish Israeli women must serve two years. At a certain point in their national service, Israelis must carry their weapons with them at all times. Last week, at an outdoor ice cream parlor in West Jerusalem, I saw a petite teenage girl sitting at the table next to mine with an automatic rifle slung over the back of her chair, the way American girls do with their purses.
After two thousand years of wandering and persecution, the Jewish people have finally built a nation of their own again, but they have yet to find a permanent peace in it. Centuries ago the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “We hoped for peace, but no good has come; for a time of healing, but there was only terror.”
Two of Israel’s five Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, have signed formal peace agreements with the Jewish state. Some foreign policy analysts believe that Syria could become the third if Israel would agree to return the Golan Heights. But how much should Israel return?
With the military outpost turned into a tourist attraction, the fear of war seems distant. Yet not a mile away, beyond the UN zone, lies the Syrian military.
Should it withdraw all the way to the Sea of Galilee, giving the Syrians access to Israel’s main water source? What about the tens of thousands of Israeli citizens living in the Heights? And would returning even that much land be enough to persuade Syria not only to recognize Israel, but also to end its considerable support for Palestinian militant groups? Syria has long nurtured its reputation as the lone Arab defender of the Palestinian cause. Perhaps Syria would demand that Israel first give the Palestinians a state of their own–which Israel is unlikely to do as long as it feels threatened by Palestinian militants. And they will probably feel threatened as long as Syria supports those militants…
The complexities of the situation baffle me. I came to the Middle East full of ideas and talking points about who’s right, who’s wrong, and what should be done. But being in Israel and Palestine, living even for a short time among the real, flesh-and-blood people whose lives are directly impacted by the conflict, has robbed me of my confidence. The presidents, prime ministers, dictators, diplomats, and scholars debate endlessly and posture and triangulate for prestige, while Oshri and his friends, and their peers on the Syrian side of the border, and the youth of Palestine, train for war. There is no sense in it.
Psalm 82 says of the rulers of the earth, “They know nothing. They understand nothing. They walk about in darkness. All the foundations of the earth are shaken.” I want to ask God why people who don’t know what they are doing are given the power to shake the earth.
My group is given only a half-hour to explore Mount Bental. After that, we load up the bus to continue our tour of northern Israel. We make the descent back into the valleys of Galilee, but make one last stop in the Heights: at the Jordan River, north of the Sea of Galilee, which marks the boundary between Israel and the Golan Heights. The bus stops at a rickety wooden foot bridge that crosses the Jordan. We walk onto the bridge to get a better look at the river.
The Israeli politician Yigal Allon once labeled the Jordan “not…a river but simply an anti-tank canal.” Having now seen several anti-tank canals, I’d have to agree. Driving a tank over the Jordan would be annoying, but fording it would not be difficult, and driving a boat down it would be nearly impossible.
At the center of the bridge, a few planks are missing. We decide that this gap in the bridge must be the border, and entertain ourselves by taking pictures of ourselves with one foot on each side of the border. A debate arises in the group: what is this the border of, exactly? Israel and Syria? Israel and Jordan? None of us can remember the details. Too many countries run together in this part of the world.
Back on the bus, we eventually figure it out. Of course, it has to be the border between Israel and the Golan Heights–Israeli-occupied Syria. The only way a border could be that demilitarized is if Israel controlled both sides. This is the Middle East, after all.