Israel’s northern borders have been the focus of epic battles throughout history, where armies passed through as their leaders sought to shape the fate of entire nations in the Levant. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Scythians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans and British to name just a few tried to beat the area into submission moving from Egypt to Mesopotamia and vice-versa.
Jewish history is rife with examples, including the biblical quote from the book of Jeremiah (1:14): “Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.” One of the most famous site is Megiddo, which gave birth to the name Armageddon, where according to Christian tradition the “mother of all battles” is supposed to occur at the end of days.
The ongoing war in Syria is a reminder that the Golan Heights has always been part of the thin Levantine corridor connecting Africa and Eurasia, hemmed in by the deserts on the east and the Mediterranean on the west. In this passageway archaeological sites are still regularly being uncovered. One site north of the Sea of Galilee, the Daughters of Jacob (Bnot Ya’akov) Bridge, is known as a historically strategic crossing point between Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Near the bridge, Tel Hazor was a flourishing city, bigger and richer than Jerusalem in biblical times.
It was also the location of King Jabin’s throne; mentioned in the book of Judges, Deborah and Barak defeated Jabin’s army, led by Sisera, at Mount Tabor. Ahab in the 10th century BCE rebuilt the city with impressive defensive walls and it played a critical role as a fortified city protecting northern Israel and the main Egypt-Mesopotamia trade route. However, throughout history its walls failed prevent the city from being destroyed and rebuilt several times until its conquest and final destruction in 732 BCE by the king of Assyria, Tiglath Pileser III. Since then, Hazor has fallen into oblivion.
Today as the drums of war thunder once again, from Iran-backed Hezbollah both in Lebanon and Syria, we have to remember that over the course of history the Golan Heights and the Bnot Ya’akov Bridge witnessed many marauding and invading forces and served as a battleground, too. In the third and second centuries BCE, during the Syrian Wars between the Seleucid Empire and the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, the successors to Alexander the Great fought each other over the remnant of the empire. In approximately 200 BCE, Antiochus the Great led the Seleucids against Scopas of Aetolia with his Ptolemaic army at the battle of Panium in the Golan Heights, near modern Banias.
The battle was won by Antiochus, but his death marked the end of the Seleucid Empire as a great power.
The expanding Roman campaigns of the time were soon to bring the collapse of other empires including that of the Greeks (Hellenic Empire).
In 636 the army of the Byzantine Empire fought the Muslim Arab forces of the Rashidun Caliphate under the command of Khalid ibn al-Walid. The Byzantines lost an epic, six-day battle at the Yarmouk basin, near the border of modern- day Syria and Jordan, just across Israel’s current border. This ended Byzantine rule in Syria and allowed the Muslim armies to conquer the entire region, including the Byzantine provincial capital of the land of Israel at that time, “Palaestina Prima,” which we know as Caesarea.
Ironically, in May 2016 various Islamic rebel groups controlling the southern Golan Heights on the Syrian side at the border zone of Israel, Syria and Jordan decided to merge and swore allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS), naming themselves the Army of Khalid ibn al-Walid.
Five centuries later in 1179, the Crusaders under King Baldwin IV, the “Leper King,” built the Chastellet (also known as Jacob’s Ford or the Ateret Crusaders fortress) to deter and prevent Muslim invasion from Damascus, then under the leadership of Saladin. The fortress itself was the site of a battle where its garrison fiercely defended their position, but ultimately Saladin’s forces took the fortress and destroyed it.
It is likely that the battle turned the tide in favor of Saladin’s forces – not only did he succeeded in destroying a major castle, killing the entire garrison, but he also crushed an army that had been considered almost invincible. This victory allowed Saladin to retake Jerusalem from the Crusaders eight years later.
Less than a century later, in 1259, the Mongols swept through the region and came down from the Golan Heights, but were defeated at the Battle of Ain Jalut (Goliath’s Spring) in 1260 and driven back by the Mamluk sultan Qutuz. The invincibility of the Mongol cavalry was broken, their target of Cairo was never taken, and the Mongols began to retreat from the Levant. The outcome of the battle in 1269 ensured Mamluk dominance of the region for the next 250 years.
During his Egyptian campaign in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte sent Murat and his cavalry across the Bnot Ya’akov Bridge to defend the strategic crossing point and block any further incursion by Ottoman governor Jezzar Pasha seeking to send reinforcement from Damascus.
In October 2017, we commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba that took place during WWI. However, British, ANZAC and even French forces also fought their way to Damascus including at the Bnot Ya’akov Bridge and further east on the Golan Heights and in Quneitra, where the Australian cavalry stood proudly on the well-known modern tourist site of Mount Bental on the Israel-Syria border.
TODAY, HEZBOLLAH threatens to unleash war against Israel, aided by other Shi’ite militias, some of them from Syria. Video from last December showed how Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (the League of the Righteous), patrolled South Lebanon.
Since then, other videos have popped up showing other Iranian or pro-Iranian figures touring Israel’s northern borders. Another example is the visit of Ebrahim Raisi, an associate of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, when he declared last month at the Lebanon-Israel border that “soon we will witness the liberation of Jerusalem.”
Published reports have shown how Iran is seeking to entrench itself in Syria and building forward positions closer to Israel along with weapons factories in Syria and Lebanon along with naval and air bases.
In a recent interview, former Israel Air Force commander Amir Eshel alluded to Iran’s proxy army Hezbollah, saying Israel has developed pre-emptive strike capabilities.
We hope we won’t need to use that military strategy, but history shows that Israel should prepare for the worst. Hazor in particular shows that defensive walls are not necessarily the most important factor in protecting us from outside threats. More important is what lay in between these walls – the civilizations and societies. History has taught us that it doesn’t really matter how strong your fortress is, how high your walls are – eventually walled and fortified cities are all but washed away by other forces or occasionally succumb to internal discord.
The ancient Greek intellectuals Isocrates and Plato raised their voices against overconfidence in cities’ protective walls. In the Laws Plato claimed the state should learn from Sparta and rely on its men rather than on walls of stone. Walls invite citizens to seek shelter within, leaving the enemy unopposed. From his perspective, Isocrates criticized Athens’ failure to be ashamed while witnessing the ravaging of its own lands.
If today one stands on the Bnot Ya’akov Bridge and looks back almost 3,000 years, history shows that the State of Israel must do more to foster the fortitude of its society, strengthening its social cohesion, unity and resilience, rather than widening the wounds of discord and division. Indeed, if American president Theodore Roosevelt’s lesson that “full knowledge of the past helps us in dealing with the future” is significant, then a quote attributed to Mark Twain is no less significant: “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”The writer is an IDF Major (res.), a former IDF liaison officer to UN forces and a Middle East security analyst. He is a lay historian with an interest in general history of the Middle East.