Off the Beaten Track: An explosive history

Mount Bental, which has been an inactive volcano for 50,000 years, offers stunning views of the north of the country.

By JOE YUDIN
August 30, 2012 14:52
Mount Bental

Mount Bental. (photo credit: Joe Yudin)

Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.

We make our way up the winding road climbing Mount Bental, an extinct volcano on the northern Golan Heights, which last erupted over 50,000 years ago. I open the windows of my van and as we climb the temperature drastically drops, which is quite welcoming in the August summer heat.

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I pull over to a small overlook where we can actually view the caldera of the neighboring volcano (also extinct) which is now a kibbutz apple orchard and is absolutely beautiful from our vantage point. We get back in the van and start to climb the mountain again. The road cuts through the mountain and exposes the different layers of black basalt stone and maroon ash.

We get to the top, exit the van and we are immediately hit in the face with the cool mountain air 1165 meters (3,822 ft.) and an incredible 360 degree view.

Several booming sounds are suddenly heard faintly in the distance.

“What was that? A sonic boom?” asks one of my tourists from Michigan.

“I don’t think so. It sounds too distant.” I respond. “Maybe we can see what it was from the overlook. My initial thought was that it is an IDF tank or artillery corps in the middle of a live fire exercise but those sounds came from the wrong direction.”

“What do you mean the wrong direction?” he asks as the smoke billows from several points over the Syrian border and the narrow UN demilitarized zone.

“What’s going on over there?”

“Well we are looking down into Syria right now and those pillars of smoke and booming noises that you hear every now and then are most likely the Syrians killing each other. Damascus, Syria’s capital and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world is only forty miles that way over Mount Hermon. It’s unfortunate for the Syrians that it has come to this but we are in no danger.”

Qunetra, Syra  - view from the Golan heights (Joe Yudin)

We walk up the stairs and into the trenches of this defunct IDF army base built after the nearly disastrous Yom Kippur War in 1973 in order to overlook the Syrian city of Quneitra. We climb out of the trenches after touring some bunkers and machine gun positions and we come out at an overlook at the northern most point of the summit overlooking the Valley of Tears, Mount Hermon and many Syrian towns, villages and cities.

Between 1948 and 1967 the Syrians used the Golan Heights to attack Israeli targets - both civilian and military - almost on a daily basis. Between 1964 and 1967 the frequency and ferocity of the attacks were stepped up and became almost unbearable. The Syrians also began building a water diversion project on the Golan in order to dry up Israel’s main water source, the Kinneret. By May of 1967 the Syrians had moved most of their military into the Golan Heights and placed their army in the hands of a joint Arab military command under Egyptian rule led by Gamal Abdel Nasser who moved the brunt of the Egyptian military into the demilitarized Sinai Peninsula in violation of the UN brokered 1956 cease-fire agreement. Nassar then started broadcasting to the world how he would “drive the Jews into the sea”. On June 4, 1967 Israel retaliated by launching an all out war against all aggressive forces capturing the Sinai, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights and east Jerusalem.

Golan Heights mine field (Joe Yudin)

Mount Bental was captured and a small outpost was set up here overlooking Quneitra which was abandoned by Syria and conquered by Israeli forces.

On Yom Kippur 1973 the Egyptians and Syrians led a surprise attack against Israel. Syrian forces steamrolled their way through Israeli front line positions in Quneitra - right below us to the east -attacking the IDF just north and south of Mount Bental. The battle sites are in full view from here. After the IDF barely survived a total collapse in the face of the initial attack, after the third day of the war the IDF reserves were able to beat back the Syrians and Egyptians. They recaptured the Suez Canal and Quneitra and began their march towards Cairo and Damascus.The US demanded that the IDF not only stop their counter attack, but also after the war had ended pressured Israel to withdraw from the Suez Canal and Quneitra in order to allow the Arabs to claim victory and start a peace process. Then prime minister Golda Meir reluctantly agreed but only on condition that Israel was able to keep these mountaintops and establish military bases on them forming a line from Mount Hermon south. The vast majority of this now defunct base was built after the war.

From this overlook open the secret door in the trench and go down the stairs into the underground base and explore the soldiers’ barracks, kitchen, radio room and bunkers. The views from the various points on the base are some of the finest in the country. One can see Lebanon, the Upper Galilean Mountains, the Hula and Jordan Valleys, Mount Hermon which is snow covered in the winter and early spring, the UN observer base, as well as views deep into Syrian territory.

Mount Bental is located above Kibbutz Merom Golan just off of road 959 a kilometer west of Route 98 at Baron Junction.

Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land  of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.


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