Israelis on the Golan soldier on as Syrian war rages next door

Driving around the Golan along the border there was no feeling of alarm from the fighting on the other side.

By
June 28, 2017 14:43
3 minute read.
Anna Ahronheim and Theirry Laskart

The writer (right) and Golan resident Theirry Laskart.. (photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)

 
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Leaning against an old, abandoned Israeli tank in a “closed military zone” a few meters from the border and peering through binoculars, one imagines the fighting going on in Syria. Faint, sporadic machine-gun fire can be heard.

An hour or so earlier on Mount Bental, a dormant volcano in the northeastern Golan Heights, and surrounded by tourists, including a family from North America on a bar mitzva trip, the sounds of battle were heavier. Artillery pounded rebel positions near Quneitra and plumes of smoke could be seen in the distance. For the young kids present on various tours it was a kind of adventure trying to be the first to point out where the smoke rose from.

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For Thierry Laskart, it was just another normal day. Returning from harvesting blueberries, he agrees to give me a tour of the area, a sidearm holstered on his waist. “Over the last few months we usually hear bursts of heavy machine gun fire. My eldest son can tell the difference between mortars and artillery.”

Laskart immigrated to Israel from France years ago and lives in El Rom (at 1,050–1,070 meters above sea level, Israel’s highest kibbutz) on the border with Syria. Before the tour he sits in his home, sipping a cup of coffee.

A drone buzzes overhead, keeping an eye on the fighting across the border. I ask him if he feels safe here. He says he does. He says that for 42 years there was quiet on the Golan after the 1973 war. In contrast to today’s relative quiet, Laskart recalls terrorist attacks from the Second Intifada.

“It’s normal here, all the zimmers [bed and breakfasts] are full. People are working.”
Israel strikes Syrian targets in response to earlier cross-border fire, June 24, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Driving around the Golan along the border there was no feeling of fear from the fighting on the other side. Even though the IDF had temporarily closed off parts of the area the night before and responded to Syrian shells hitting on the Israeli side by striking Syrian Army tanks, the roads are packed with visitors. Driving up to Mount Bental, one of the highest peaks on the Golan which has a commanding view of the Valley of Tears, scene of major tank battle in October 1973, and the abandoned town of Quneitra on the Syrian side, the roads are packed.



There is even a small traffic jam and people on horseback were doing a tour. They seem oblivious to the fighting a few kilometers away.

Closer to the border there is a former Syrian military headquarters.

The large concrete building is covered in graffiti today and is a lunch stop for off-roading groups. One of those groups is run by ATV Merom Golan. Owner Erez Zukerman and one of his tour operators, Mai Ori, stand on the steps of the old Syrian headquarters.

Ori is doing his fourth tour of the day. They drive within 500 meters of Quneitra and the border area.

“We are always in touch with the army and the UN and we are not afraid, but it’s about feeling secure. It’s truly a border that is relatively quiet,” he says. If there is any danger of shelling they change their tour route. Ori is from Kibbutz Merom Golan nearby and served in the Golani Brigade in the IDF. He feels he has a good sense of the dangers here.

Zukerman says that this border is one of the most militarized in Israel today. Nevertheless the Syrian rebels, Hezbollah, Islamic State and other groups on the other side are setting sights on one another, not Israel.

The previous day the army had warned that the situation was too hot for a tour on the border. Luckily, the only real heat though is the sauna-like weather.

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