Revisiting the Golan Heights, 50 years after the Yom Kippur War

Ortal Tourism has launched a new tourism program called Fifty Years Later, which takes participants on a three-day trip through the pastoral surroundings of the Golan Heights.

 TEL SAKI monument.  (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
TEL SAKI monument.
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)

In two months, Israel will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War – a war that caught us completely off guard and unprepared. Some people even go so far as to say that the ramifications of this carelessness affect Israel to this day. 

The date October 6, 1973, is engraved deeply in the history of the State of Israel as the day the Egyptians and Syrians launched a surprise attack against Israel on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. 

The war might have been short, but it led to a number of significant political and diplomatic changes that might not have occurred had circumstances been different. Another lesson learned from the Yom Kippur War was how important intelligence and a serious appraisal of the situation on the ground are for winning a war. 

Of course, there are some who believe that the war has had an incredibly strong effect on Israelis, and that many of those who are actively leading the current large protests in Israel’s cities were personally affected by the Yom Kippur War. 

“The loss of trust in the government began already back then” is a sentiment discussed often during the journey around the Golan Heights that was organized in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. But is that actually true? Apparently, it’s a matter of perception. There’s no doubt, however, that the people of the Golan still have much to say about that period.

 JEEP RIDE past abandoned Syrian military camp. (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
JEEP RIDE past abandoned Syrian military camp. (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)

What to see in the Golan Heights half a century after the Yom Kippur War?

WHAT ELSE can be said 50 years after that seminal event? It turns out, a lot, especially now that Ortal Tourism has launched a new tourism program called Fifty Years Later, which takes participants on a three-day trip through the pastoral surroundings of the Golan Heights. They will hear stories about the pioneering spirit of the time, view agricultural settlements, and walk through vineyards that were planted after the war had ended. 

This tour is a great opportunity to reflect on the not-so-distant history of the Golan Heights region, hear about the resilience of its residents, and embrace the natural beauty of the land that has seen far too many battles. It’s a journey that honors the past, while also embracing the present, and leaving a lasting impression on every person who walks along the paths on its hills. For anyone who is excited to hear tales of battles, this program is a must. 

Each trip begins with a guided tour of Ein Keshatot, beginning with brunch on a balcony with a beautiful scenic view of the natural surroundings. The well-preserved synagogue that was discovered here dates back to the Roman period, around the 4th century BCE. 

Visitors can watch a short film about the ancient history of the region, and then climb down to the ruins of a 1,500-year-old village and see firsthand how the stones have been preserved. The tour includes a stop at a spring that flows out of a building with three arches, as well as at the ancient synagogue.

The next stop on the journey is Tel Saki, one of the most important heritage sites in the Golan Heights. Tel Saki was one of the most strategically significant locations for the IDF during the Yom Kippur War, and a number of fierce battles took place on that spot. There is a monument there commemorating the 32 IDF soldiers who lost their lives near Tel Saki. 

Visitors can weave their way through the bunkers and explore all the nooks and crannies with flashlights. There is a lot of graffiti on the walls, as well as items that were left behind. You can also climb up to the observation post from which you can look down into land belonging to Israel, Syria, and Jordan. 

After a short relaxation break at Kibbutz Ortal, the tour continues with a moving story told by Ayala Goren, who lives on Moshav Ramat Magshimim. When the war broke out, Goren had a baby and was expecting another one. She recalls watching from her kitchen window as worshipers raced from the synagogue, following an order to quickly pack a bag and board a bus that was waiting to bring them to the war front.

She describes how frightening it was for her and the other women to bid farewell to their husbands. Later, all the residents were transported by bus to a safer location in pitch darkness.

The group will also meet Rabbi Avia Rosen, head of Midreshet Natur, a pre-army program that encourages participants to delve deeply into Jewish philosophy. For years, Rosen has been researching the effect war has had on Israeli society, and he readily shares his findings and conclusions with visitors. 

The day ends with a dinner of delicacies from Galilean Druze cuisine, followed by a musical session with singer Mika Einav, who shares her thoughts about the influence war has had on Israeli musical culture. 

THE SECOND day of the program begins with a bountiful breakfast at Kibbutz Ortal, followed by a jeep ride through the hills of the Golan Heights that takes you to spots that up until now were off limits to non-military vehicles. Along the way, participants can see abandoned tanks on the side of the road, as well as other objects left from the war. The first stop of the day is Hurbat Dalweh, a Syrian village captured by Israel during the Six Day War. 

Next is the lookout at Mount Bental, which is actually a dormant volcano that stands 1,165 meters above sea level, offering an excellent vantage point from which to view the Golan, Mount Hermon, and the Syrian border. From this spot, it’s much easier to understand how Israelis living in northern Israel must have felt as Syrian tanks advanced upon Israeli communities. The jeep will then pass by an abandoned Syrian military camp that is now covered with graffiti, and then a grove with fig and plum trees. 

After the jeep tour comes to an end, the group will be invited to walk among the grapevines of the Tel Shifon Winery in Kibbutz Ortal, enjoy a wine tasting, and meet with photographer Rina Nagila, who has been documenting sights in the Golan Heights for decades. A dairy dinner will be served in the kibbutz dining hall, followed by dessert and a festive evening of singing. 

Immediately following breakfast on the third day, visitors will set out for a tour of the Syrian Command Post, where they will hear the incredible story of Israel’s most famous spy connected to the Golan: Eli Cohen. 

Participants in this program will drive from one site to another in their own cars (except for the jeep ride). Accommodation for the two nights will be at Kibbutz Ortal. 

The price is NIS 3,500 per couple, including overnight at Kibbutz Ortal, jeep tours, meals, and entrance to all sites. For more details, call (04) 648-8095.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.