Life on the Golan Heights Echoes Israel’s Policy With Syria

  • Share
  • Read Later
Baz Ratner / Reuters

Israeli soldiers take part in a drill in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, on Sept. 9, 2013

For Israelis living within sight of Syria — and earshot of the war raging there — daily life presents a peculiar duality. On their side of the line, routines proceed with a kind of neighborly fellow feeling that reminds Nadav Katz of the Israel of his childhood in the 1950s and ’60s, so few are the people on the Golan plateau, and so happy are they to be there together. One day this summer the retiree was working in his yard while a neighbor chased his little boy next door. Everyone was laughing, Katz recalls.

“And we hear the explosions,” says Katz, 65. “And from experience we know what explosion means.” Syrian rebels, who hold a string of villages clearly visible on the plain below Katz’s Merom Golan house, were mounting an assault on the village closest to the line. The place has changed hands twice in recent months, and the neighbors hear everything.

“This contrast is unpleasant to know, to encounter,” says Katz. “And we keep hearing it, we keep hearing the explosions. Sometimes closer. Sometimes far away.”

The contrast mirrors the posture of Israel’s government to Syria’s horrific conflict. On the one hand, Jerusalem laments the human toll of a civil war that killed more than 100,000 people in the past 2½ years. It does what it can. To treat the wounded near its frontier, both civilians and fighters, Israel erected a military field hospital; other cases are carried to hospitals across the country’s north.

(MORE: Cheer Up, Obama. Israel Is Happy With Your Syria Plan)

At the same time, Israel has rushed to erect a massive new fence to separate it from the conflict in which it wants no part. The 100-km barrier is 80% finished, a formidable 9 m of razor wire and rebar replacing the rusty, tattered fence that long marked the edge of the strategic high ground Israel twice has taken from Syria — first, in the lightning-quick Six-Day War of 1967, then again, at great cost, after Syria’s surprise offensive in the October War six years later. In the cease-fire that held steady for the next four decades, nothing more was needed.

Now, uncertainty looms in assorted forms. Two million Syrians have fled the country as refugees, and of the millions more uprooted inside the country, hundreds have gathered along Israel’s fence, presenting a fresh humanitarian challenge. The greater fear, however, is the unpredictable forces unleashed by a war that began as peaceful protests. In some areas, including the villages below Katz’s house, the rebels arrayed against Syrian President Bashar Assad are local militias affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a motley but relatively moderate force the Obama Administration is beginning to arm. But that’s not the case just a few miles to the south.

“Most of the rebels in this area are al-Qaeda-affiliated,” says Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, from an IDF post dug into a cliffside where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Israel meet. The dramatic terrain gives the national boundaries a clarity seldom found outside story books: the massive escarpment to the left is Syria, the equally massive escarpment to the right is Jordan, and the narrow road winding through the cleft between them leads to the four graceful arches of the Ottoman-era bridge where tens of thousands of refugees have shuffled to escape the fighting.

“We are facing three entities,” says Hirsch. “The official Syrian forces. Hizballah. And all these guys who are roughly al-Qaeda, who are here first to fight against the Assad regime, but who later want to bring the Islamist revolution and to fight Israel.” Israeli intelligence estimates 6,000 “jihadis” are present in Syria, according to an interview in Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday with General Yair Golan, the Israeli brigadier in charge of the northern front.

(MORE: Russian Envoy Dismisses U.N. Report on Syrian Chemical Weapons as ‘Biased’)

Hizballah is the more immediate threat. The formidable Lebanese-based Shi‘ite militia was created by Iran to fight Israel after it invaded Lebanon in 1982, but fought more like an army in its 2006 war with Israel. Its deployment in Syria to help save Assad (its other patron) is another factor that hastened Israel’s decision to harden its boundaries. Israel built the same formidable new fence along its 240-km border with Egypt, initially to keep out African migrants entering Israel from the Sinai, but more quickly after the Sinai became a haven for jihadists. Only the border with Jordan, to the east, remains as it did before the Arab Spring, a testimony to Israel’s confidence in both the staying power and the interests it shares with King Abdullah II in Amman, whose security police scour the Syrian refugees for militants.

Meanwhile, Israel itself enjoys a calm that, at least in the Golan, has always been haunted by reminders of previous wars. On vacations like the Sukkot holiday that began this week, Israelis flock to the area, where hiking trails are marked with white squares, and mine fields by red triangles (and fences). Populated only by fewer than 20,000 people, most of them Druze who used to be Syrian, the airy landscape is mostly cattle rangeland, plus apple orchards, apiaries and vineyards. It doesn’t look like anywhere else controlled by Israel: an igneous formation, the Golan’s stone is no shade of the limestone that sheaths Jerusalem; it’s black. Antenna arrays bristle from atop promontories commanders refer to as “strategic volcanoes.”

It can be hard to distinguish new threat from old. Hirsch, the reservist brigadier, brought a small group of reporters to an Israeli position below Katz’s house. The grassland around it was blackened, not by farmers keeping down weeds but shells that had overshot the fence, igniting the grass. When rifle fire burped in the distance, Hirsch recognized the source as an Israeli firing range to the rear. But a few moments later, the crack of rifle sounded from in front of us, apparently fired by one of the Syrians in plain clothes who had been watching us watch them, atop a rooftop a few hundred yards away. The one in a blue shirt was carrying a Kalashnikov.

“It’s a resort, basically,” says Yaron Dekel, outside his own house in Alonei Habashan, a Jewish village of perhaps 300 people 8 km to the south of Katz’s home, and even closer to the fence. A biochemist who says he turned down an offer from Harvard to move to the Golan, Dekel, 37, appears sincere. It is indeed quieter here than in Ashdod, Ashkelon or Beersheva, large cities within range of the rockets that Palestinian militants send out of the Gaza Strip. They’ve had only one shell land — a dud — in the past year. But the sound of fighting put a damper on a recent get-together at a local kibbutz that operates a vineyard.

“It’s a pity, really,” he says. “People on one side of the border drink wine, and on the other side they are killing each other.”

“Usually we hear the wind,” says Siska Dekel, his wife. “But sometimes we hear bombs.”

MORE: Iranian Officials: Israel Will Be First Victim of a Syria Attack