If I forget thee...

Celebrating in Jerusalem, looking to the North - to the Golan Heights.

By
June 1, 2008 21:07
If I forget thee...

Golan 224.88. (photo credit: Jonathan Beck)

Coming up for Jerusalem Day, celebrated today, instead of singing only songs of praise to the Holy City, I found myself humming tributes to the Golan. Never has the distance seemed shorter. "Over there are the hills of Golan, stretch out your hands and touch them. In their stalwart stillness they give the command to halt," wrote the poet Rachel in "The Hills of Golan" (Sham Harei Golan). Naomi Shemer - whose "Jerusalem of Gold" has just been voted the country's most popular song of the last 60 years - put Rachel's words to music so that generations could sing: In splendid isolation grandfather Hermon slumbers. A cool wind blows from the peak of whiteness. Over there, on the seashore, a low-topped palm tree stands, dishevelled like a mischievous infant that has slid down and splashes in the waters of the Kinneret. How abundant are the flowers in the winter, bunches of blood-red anemones, the orange of the crocus. There are days when the greenery is sevenfold green and seventy-fold is the blue of the sky... MY FIRST encounter with the Golan was less than poetic. It was the result of a typical IDF mismatch. Just over a year in the country, all but six weeks of it spent with a Nahal garin, an army unit dedicated to the pioneering life, I decided to strike out on my own and try my luck in a regular unit. A Northern Command clerk who was either obtuse or had a very weird sense of humor took one look at the details in my personal file - including the fact that I had made aliya from London and spoke English, French and in those days a passable German - and assigned me to serve in the military government of the Golan Heights. All I needed - and didn't have - were Hebrew and Arabic. I was miserable. The only consolation I found were the stunning views from the base in Mas'ada, a chance to learn about the lives of the local Druse communities who welcomed me into their homes, and an opportunity to study the amazing wildlife up close - so close that one day I realized that what I had assumed was a stray German shepherd was actually a wolf with a taste for meat sandwiches. Eventually the military governor, who was my commanding officer, took pity on me (or perhaps feared the potential damage that could be caused by a crazy English girl who fed wolves and got excited about giant moths), and made sure I was transferred somewhere more suitable for both me and the army. I later learned my departure had sparked much discussion: I had hitchhiked home in uniform carrying my pet budgerigars, and the local Druse - who appreciated the birds I'd kept in my office - wondered if I wasn't being evacuated because of the threat of imminent war. It was the early 1980s, pre-Operation Peace for Galilee, and the chirps of Chanticleer and Pertelote were periodically drowned out by the sound of the shooting in Lebanon. "Like a mischievous infant" in Rachel's words, I, too, slid down and splashed in the waters of the Kinneret. THE MILITARY governor had obviously pulled rank or strings or both. I received a posting in the IDF Liaison to the UN unit, on a tiny base with a private beach on the Sea of Galilee. No wonder people kept asking me if I'd seen Private Benjamin, in which Goldie Hawn, before her transfer to NATO, declares: "I think they sent me to the wrong place. You see, I did join the army, but I joined a different one. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms." The work was interesting, the languages comprehensible. I left the budgies at home in Karmiel and adopted Pom-Pom, a cat who would sit on the water's edge, elegantly extend a claw and hook out a fish. In those days there was plenty of water in the Kinneret. But it wasn't all fun. The rockets were still falling on Galilee. Terrorist incursions were taking a toll in northern communities. War was inevitable and the times were tense. Strangely, the commanding views I had had on the Golan did not give me an insight into the strategic importance of the Heights. True appreciation of that came when I least expected it. Our base in Tiberias had been "loaned" to the army by the police. One day searching for something in a closet we came across an old police file with details of an incident in which fishermen had been attacked on the Kinneret. I don't remember what year the incident took place or the precise details. I wish I could forget the photos. Two colleagues and I studied the contents of the folder, at once revolted and yet unable to put it down. Syrians from their position above the Sea of Galilee had shot at the fishermen, who didn't stand a chance. It was not an isolated incident. In the days before Israel commanded the Heights, farmers were also picked off in their fields. THE IMAGES came back to mind last week when former chief of staff Dan Halutz announced: "Theoretically, Israel can do without the Golan." Well, theoretically, anything is possible. It's the real life that worries me. True, I am only a humble corporal and Halutz is a not-humble-enough lieutenant-general who found time to sell his stocks on the day the Second Lebanon War broke out. I am willing to accept financial advice he might offer but given the obvious failings of Halutz's air force-oriented concept during the hostilities, I feel I can safely reject his strategic suggestions regarding the Golan. Much water has flowed out of the Kinneret since the days I served on the base on its shores. When the Knesset passed the Golan Heights Law in December 1981, disbanding the military government there and making it an integral part of the country, I was on a military course in Tel Aviv. In that happenstance way of life, I ended up in Jerusalem. This is home. My family will celebrate Jerusalem Day, marking the reunification of the city in 1967. But we will look to the North. Because it is clear that what happens there affects us wherever we choose to live in the country. Theoretically, Lt.-Gen (retd.) Halutz, Lebanon II should not have occurred since we pulled out of the security zone in 2000. In theory, there should be no Palestinian attacks from Gaza since we disbanded the Gush Katif settlements. Technically, we could declare peace with Syria tomorrow. But do you really trust the word of Bashar Assad? We might have a prime minister being investigated for corruption but this is nothing compared to what Syria has to put up with. Assad, after all, is being investigated by the UN for his role in the assassination of Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. No wonder he welcomes diverting international attention to his "peace efforts." "If I forget thee O Jerusalem..." will trip off my tongue this Jerusalem Day, lest it cleaves to the roof of my mouth, and all that. However, I will spare some thought for the words of Rachel, who ended "The Hills of Golan" thus: "But even if I become poverty-stricken and walk bent over and my heart becomes the beacon for strangers, how can I betray you, how can I forget? How can I forget the grace of youth?"


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