For now, all quiet on the Golan

Waiting for the storm to break: The Heights appear calm as tourists enjoy the end of summer holiday, amid warnings from Hezbollah.

By
August 23, 2015 06:41
Golan

A VIEW ACROSS near Majdal Shams across the Golan border fence into Syria. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

 
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The banks of the Jordan River next to Yesud Hama’ala are crammed with campers this time of year. “In June I could come running here and not see anyone, but now I’ve got to deal with all the dogs they bring with them, and there are so many people,” said Asgeir Ueland, a resident of the community.

Yesud Hama’ala was the first Jewish community in the Hula Valley.

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Where once were malarial swamps and a warren of reeds, is now a tourist area of pastoral farm country.

As you make your way up to the Golan from the Jordan River there are reminders everywhere of the conflicts over this area. On one side of the narrow Jordan River is an old rolling bridge that the army last practiced with in 2010 near Kibbutz Gonen. It can create a temporary ford of the river. Meandering up the steep roads of the Heights there are signs commemorating the battles of 1967 and 1973. But mostly what one sees are the fat Golan cattle making their way along the road.

On Thursday, four rockets were fired into Israel from Syria. Two of the rockets struck in the Hula Valley in the Upper Galilee and two hit the Golan. They set off fires near Kfar Szold. In response, Israeli artillery and air strikes were carried out on more than a dozen targets throughout Syria. Syrian rebel sources reported strikes into the night and Syrian state TV SANA claimed aircraft hit a military position near Quneitra. A hiker who was enjoying a walk on the Golan Heights on Thursday said he had been surprised by the artillery. “I think it’s the first time since ’73 that we’ve used it against Syria.”

It is part of a series of low level tit-for-tat attacks that have been carried out since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. On January 18, Jihad Mughniyeh, son of the infamous Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, was killed near Quneitra. On January 28, two IDF soldiers were killed and seven were wounded by a Hezbollah attack on Mount Dov on the Syria and Lebanon border. Samir Kuntar, who spent decades in Israeli prison and now plays a role for Hezbollah on the Golan, is thought to have been the target of an attack in late July.

Every few weeks stray mortar shells or other projectiles have been fired into Israel from Syria. In addition, Israel has been operating a field hospital treating Syrians wounded in the civil war, including rebel fighters, for two years.



On Friday morning, Syrian TV reported that Israel attacked a car near the village of Kom, near Khan Arnabeh, killing a half-dozen people.

The village is located 10 km. east of the demilitarized buffer zone along the Golan border. It can be seen in the haze from a lookout hill on the Israeli side near Bukata.

According to reports the occupants of the car were an Islamic Jihad cell that Israel accused of complicity in the rocket attack. Israel sent a diplomatic complaint to the Western powers that have signed a nuclear deal with Iran, claiming that Iran’s support for Islamic Jihad was responsible for the attack. Syrian rebels on the Golan reported on their Facebook that the headquarters building of a Syrian major-general from the 90th Brigade was one of the targets Israel struck.

By Saturday, quiet had returned to the Heights. Along the border near the Druse village of Khadr, which sits at the base of Mount Hermon in Syria, a few kilometers from Majdal Shams on the Israel side, a shiny fence has been constructed by the IDF. It is yet one more obstacle on a landscape dotted with massive anti-tank ditches from the late ’60s, which defend Israel from attack.

IDF positions dot the horizon in both directions, looking into Syria.

But there was no sign of major military operations under way.

Druse men drove their tractors along the border road that runs along the DMZ. The local Druse economy is based on apples, which are sitting plump on the trees to be harvested next month. The people here are prospering. New restaurants and bars are open in Majdal Shams. In the fields near Mas’ada is a pretty sheikh’s tomb called Makam al-Yakuri. A weekend market sells olive oil and cherries and a store called Happyland sells kids’ toys. At an overlook along the border the Druse have set up some chairs and a tin shed to watch any fighting that might break out in Khadr.

On June 22, when rumors reached Majdal Shams that Israel was treating wounded Syrian rebel fighters who threatened Khadr, a mob lynched one of the fighters being transported in an IDF ambulance through the town. Since then things have calmed down. On the border a large wild boar seems to have gotten stuck between the fence and another row of barbed wire.

He wanders back and forth amid signs reading “Danger Mines.” This could turn out badly. But he finds his way out along a dirt road leading into Syria. He’s the only infiltrator we saw Saturday.

Along the border area near the Druse villages of Bukata and Mas’ada, a lot of investment has been put into grading the roads.

A new Druse school is being built.

Several memorials from the 1973 war dot the landscape with old Centurion tanks, their barrels pointed down as if sleeping, are perched behind earthen berms. One sign directs tourists to an overlook of the “Valley of the Tears” below Mount Hermonit, where in 1973 Israel fought the Syrians. The valley itself lies in Syria and is contests by the rebels and the regime. But except for what seemed like one minor percussion in the distance, nothing could be heard of the war. A large yellow sign near an IDF position warns drivers “Mortal Danger, Military Zone, any person who passes or damages the fence endangers his life.” Oddly it doesn’t say “Entry is Forbidden.”

The only evidence that the army is on alert is the presence of armored vehicles, APCs and others, relaxing in the hot sun, near the IDF posts.

But the border area is open to tourists, whose lines of SUVs navigating the dirt roads just a kilometer from the DMZ can be seen from the mountain lookouts that peer into Syria toward Damascus.

On Mount Hermonit near Bukata, the old IDF fort from the 1970s, with its concrete bunkers, trenches and parapets, overlooks a wide, sweeping view of Syria. An IDF soldier with a jeep drives up to take a look and then leaves. A beer bottle has been discarded near one of the old trenches. Graffiti on one bunker says in Hebrew, “View of Syria” with a giant arrow.

In Bukata at 10 in the morning the town is starting to come awake. A restaurant serving hummus is catering to a group of weekend biking enthusiasts. At a gas station, a dozen men with Polaris Ranger 4-wheelers are revving their engines for a weekend holiday.

At around noon, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai reports that Hezbollah has put its forces in Lebanon and Syria on high alert for a war with Israel. At the same time the US Embassy issued a travel warning for American citizens urging them to “carefully consider and possibly defer travel” to northern Israel and the Golan Heights.

For now the Heights are quiet, tourists are traveling as they always have done during summer break, up to swim in the springs and hike the trails. One water tank along the road was packed by dozens of young men catching a dip in the cool waters.

The question is when the storm will break and the sirens in the North will sound, not for a few rockets, but for days as Israel faces off against Hezbollah’s arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets that can reach south of Tel Aviv.

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