When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, 21-year-old combat medic Eitan Plonski was called to the northern front. For over two weeks he treated wounded soldiers with incredible devotion. On October 22, during the second fierce battle for Mount Hermon, he learned that the company's commander and signal operator had been seriously wounded. Although one of the soldiers tried to hold him back, certain that in the face of raging fire he would never make it to his wounded comrades, Eitan forged ahead. Just as he reached the site, Eitan took a direct, and fatal, bullet to the head.
We may not recall their names, or have heard about their feats of courage, but monuments to soldiers who fell in the north, a region that has seen all too many wars, can help us remember the price they paid. Here are a few memorial sites that you may want to visit - dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives in the Yom Kippur War, the Six Day War, and the years before and after.
1. Barely a year has past since that terrible day in August when 12 reservists were killed by rockets fired from Lebanon into the Upper Eastern Galilee. They had been standing outside the cemetery at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, one of the most symbolic sites in Israel. For it is at Kfar Giladi that a statue of a roaring lion towers over the grave of Joseph Trumpeldor, killed defending Tel Hai in 1920. (Trumpeldor is best known for his legendary last words: 'It is good to die for one's country.')
An impromptu memorial is a poignant reminder of that catastrophic attack. To find it, take Highway 90 to Kfar Giladi and turn into the cemetery. While you are there, visit Trumpeldor's grave, and those of famous Watchmen (shomrim) who guarded Jewish settlements from Arab attack during the early 20th century.
2. During the Six Day war, the brigade that had been positioned across from the Golan Heights since 1948 was chosen to capture the Syrian military base at Tel Faher. Called Golani for its long-term proximity to the Heights, the brigade fought a ferocious battle overrun with military error and studded with superhuman feats of bravery. Wheelchair-accessible paths lead to the peak of Tel Faher, from which you can easily view the Jewish settlements below. No doubt that's why the Syrians chose this hill, and the one in front of it (Tel Aziziat), as military positions. To reach Tel Faher, Golani troops first had to capture Tel Aziziat.
After tanks and armored personnel carriers were damaged by mines during the advance, the soldiers continued forward on foot up the hill and into the Syrian trenches. Tel Aziziat was taken, but Israel had lost the element of surprise. And due to a mistake in navigation, the men ascended the hill to Tel Faher directly into waiting Syrian guns. Over half the attack force were killed or wounded on their way to battle. Remaining troops advanced to the nine- meter-wide barbed-wire fence and placed explosives, which failed to detonate. Worried about the time involved in cutting through such a thick wall of wire, one incredibly brave soldier lay face down atop the wire, enabling the rest of the force to cross over on his back.
After nearly five hours the Golani troops succeeded in taking the base, but almost all of the Israeli soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle.
Today called Mitzpe Golani (Golani Overlook), Tel Faher is now a living memorial to fallen Golani troops. To get there, go east on Highway 99, pass the Banyas Nature Reserve, and follow the sign that appears immediately after you cross the bridge. Don't leave without walking through the trenches and gazing at the valley below, as if you were a Syrian soldier. Taped explanations (in English) tell the story of the battle.
3. Ami Lev-Tov was 35 years old when the Six Day War began. A major in the reserves, he served as company tank commander on the ascent of the Golan Heights. While peering out of the turret in an attempt to direct his men, he was hit by a Syrian shell. He died shortly afterwards of his wounds.
An unusual monument, dedicated to Ami by his friends on the very spot where he was fatally wounded, is found off Highway 99 east of the Sa'ar Waterfall. Watch for a field studded with Syrian bunkers: a cog-wheel stands atop one of them, alongside the hoop that circles the hatch.
4. In 1957, a small unit was formed to patrol the relatively quiet northern border. But with an increase in enemy activity, the unit - called the Egoz Patrol - began dealing with terrorists in an area stretching from Mount Hermon to the Jordan Valley. Soldiers from the Egoz Patrol participated in both the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars and, in between, guarded Israel's borders with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
A touching environmental memorial to the 31 men of the Egoz Patrol is located on a hill along Highway 989 and southwest of Moshe Neveh Ativ. Look for it just beyond the tomb of Druse Sheikh Ottoman El-Hazuri, near a grove of magnificent oaks. Scattered along a winding path are 31 individual monuments, each a basalt rock whose bronze plaque is inscribed with a name, the date on which the soldier lost his life, and the patrol's symbol. Basalt, transported here from the Golan Heights, forms a striking contrast to the hill's pale limestone rock.
5. Further north atop Mount Hermon, you will find a monument to medic Eitan Plonski and three soldiers who fell with him in battle. Take the ski lift to the upper station; placed there by their families, the monument consists of a huge basalt rock atop a stone platform.
From here, your breathtaking view takes in Emek Mann, one of several dolinas on Mount Hermon. Dolinas - small, enclosed limestone valleys - are formed when rainwater and acid dissolve the surface rock. At the lowest point of this circular basin there is a large pool of water that local shepherds use to water their flocks.
6. On the fourth day of the Yom Kippur War, Syria launched a formidable attack from a valley north of Kuneitra. It planned to take control of the central Golan Heights and from there move easily into Israel.
In a bloody day-long battle between massive Syrian armored forces and a handful of Israeli tanks, exhausted reservists led by battalion commander Avigdor Kahalani won the day. Over 500 destroyed Syrian tanks and armored personnel carriers were left behind when the Syrians retreated - and the Syrian offensive was effectively halted. The battleground is known today as the Valley of Tears. To get there, take Highway 98 between Bukata and Kibbutz Merom Golan and take the road at El Rom Junction.
Trees at the site, which was prepared by the Jewish National Fund, were planted in memory of the soldiers from the 77th regiment who fought - and fell - in the valley. Their names are written in Hebrew on plaques below the trees and in one central monument. The memorial site is called Oz 77: 'Oz' is the Hebrew word for 'strength.'
Four stone plaques, leaning against a wall of basalt rock, stand in a lovely Jewish National Fund picnic and recreation area at the entrance to Kibbutz Ein Zivan (at the intersection of Highways 91 and 98). Inscribed on the plaques are the names of 35 fallen soldiers from the 134th squadron which fought Syrians and Iraqis in the first weeks of the Yom Kippur War. Cedars, generally a symbol of courage, were planted here to express the continuity of life; a bench thoughtfully placed nearby offers the opportunity for quiet contemplation. Follow a path through a field to reach a tank pointed directly at Syria. Climb onto the platform, part of a Syrian army base, for a great view of the region.
7. Brigade 679 is an army reservist division that was established in the early 1970s. Called up at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War after the Syrian army invaded the Golan Heights, the brigade inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.
A striking monument to fallen brigade soldiers - constructed out of parts taken from damaged Syrian tanks - stands at the entrance to the Jewish National Fund's beautiful Fighters' Forest. To get there, look for a sign off Highway 91, south of Kibbutz Ortal and just north of Shipon Junction.
Nearby, picnic tables are shaded by flourishing cedar and oak trees. Possibly the hawthorn trees, indigenous to Israel, will already be bearing delicious little apple-like fruit. Picnic tables are wheelchair accessible.
8. A State of alert was declared along the border with Syria on March 16, 1962, and settlers headed for their shelters. For late that night, the IDF intended to hit the heavily fortified Syrian base of Nokave on the northern shore of Lake Kinneret, one of many outposts from which Syrian soldiers repeatedly attacked Israeli fishermen plying their trade.
When reinforcements were needed, 19-year-old Golani soldier Ya'acov Dvir immediately volunteered. His halftrack ran over a mine, but Ya'acov wasn't hurt. As the action continued, he was asked to clear a minefield and, again, remained untouched. Nokave was taken by our troops, but as they began to move out they were shelled heavily by the Syrians on the Heights. When it was all over, Ya'acov had disappeared.
A memorial now stands on the former Syrian base, about two and a half kilometers south of Kursi Junction. It commemorates eight soldiers from the Golani Brigade who fell in battle. The fate of Ya'acov Dvir remains unknown.
9. At the age of 18, Eran Shamir volunteered for a year of pre-army service as a guide at the Keshet Yonatan field school in Kibbutz Keshet (east of Katzrin and south of Keshet Junction on Highway 87).
An avid hiker, Eran was an earnest youth with a passionate love for this country, its nature, its history and its heritage. He had an affinity for every rock, flower, tree and animal in the Holy Land, knew the entire Bible by heart, and ignited his listeners' interest in military valor. The following year he became a paratrooper, served in a commando unit and soon became an officer. In 1997, at the age of 23, he was killed in Lebanon.
Eran Shamir is remembered at Kibbutz Keshet with a scenic drive up a hill to a fantastic overlook. Signs (in Hebrew) describe the foliage on the hill and explain about its volcanic rock.
Looking down from the peak, you can view the difference between the northern and southern Golan Heights: the northern part is characterized by ever higher volcanic hills, fertile ground for the region's famous apples and other fruit. The southern Golan features long fields of basalt rock - perfect for field crops. The reservoirs below, used for crop irrigation, fill with water from winter floods. Hang onto your hats: it's windy up here!