The Golan during lockdown: From Trump Heights to snowy Hermon

The Golan today is as pretty as ever. Unfortunately, the public at large currently cannot enjoy it.

An old military fort on the Syrian border is seen, with snow-covered Mount Hermon in the background. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
An old military fort on the Syrian border is seen, with snow-covered Mount Hermon in the background.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
At the foot of the Golan Heights, just as you turn left from route 90 to 91 to make the approach to the Jordan River, there is a checkpoint manned by police and Border Police, asking some travelers where they are going during lockdown. The roving checkpoint seems to be intermittent because later in the afternoon, near Mahanayim some youth hitchhiking are waiting for a “tremp” or ride, and there are no police about.
I have fond memories of buying food for a BBQ at the stores here, but during the lockdown the ghost-town feeling has settled on the valley. Here once were Crusaders, as one can see from the nearby Ateret fortress, called Chastelet by the knights. Not far from here also the swamps of the Hula were drained. On February 3 when Matt Churchill, a tour guide, and I went up to the Golan, the area was quiet. Hulking Merkava tanks, on the back of flatbed trucks, were traversing their way up the hills. This whole area is festooned with bases and the detritus of wars. Everyone tells stories of various battles from 1973, battles now brought to life in the recent Israeli series Kan’s ‘Valley of Tears.’
After a short drive through Katzrin, we traversed the Golan up north to a small community called Qela Alon. The pretty community, overlooking the valley below, is next door to the area that is supposedly being transformed into “Trump Heights.” The Trump Heights sign, at the entrance to a community called Qela Bruchim, is back up and appears repainted after photos had shown it in disrepair. A metal eagle statue soars near it. According to locals sometimes the eagle has been vandalized. Inside the community here, it appears new caravan-style dwellings are being built. The older residents of the village seem to have been bypassed by history. However, the idea that this will one day be a major new community seems lost on the horses enjoying the relatively warm winter weather. Looming over the area, majestically, are the snow-covered heights of the Hermon.
A short drive down the road from Qela Alon, which was established in the last two decades, leads to a rock-clogged road and a burbling stream. Here the stream eventually gives way to the Nahal Orvim Reserve. “Nice winter safe trip” a sign says, warning visitors that due to possible “collapsing” rocks the area of the “crow waterfall” is for observation only. This sounds like a badly translated Chinese proverb. Nice winter safe trip.
We waited for a four-wheeler to appear driven by Dalton Thomas, a local resident who is also President of Frontier Alliance International and is producing a film on location. Dalton, who sports a jet-black flowing beard, has brought some colleagues to produce the film and they are lugging their equipment over rock escarpment to a pretty overlook.
The wind buffets. A dog runs around. Thomas, a passionate activist, recalls the years in the past in the region when his FAI has played a role highlighting issues in Syria and Iraq. In years past I covered the war in Syria and Israel’s support for Syrian wounded who crowded the border during the civil war, speaking to Dalton brings back the memories of the old days.
Today the Golan is quiet from the war that once rumbled on the other side of the line. The quiet may be an illusion. The same day we went up to the Golan reports said that anti-aircraft fire targeted an IDF drone. The buzz of drones is a constant in these parts of northern Israel.
A twenty minute drive from Dalton’s film shoot brings us to some of the other phenomena of the Golan. A newly painted army training facility carpets a hillside near Merom Golan. The white mock houses are near an old APC that was turned over in some previous war. Here the preparation for the future war meets the leftovers from the last wars.
Over the hills near Merom Golan, the views are obstructed by new wind turbines. These are majestic in their own way, their giant blades waiting for the order to turn. It’s not lack of wind, but someone hasn’t switched them on. Locals argue about a lot of things up here, including security and the wind turbines and Trump Heights. Some feel the wind turbines are ruining the pretty and rural area. However wind turbines have graced this area in the past, a bit further south, long abandoned and in ruin. Now there are new ones, and another dozen will be built, people say.
We drove into El Rum, one of several communities that are within a few kilometers of the border. In the days when the war was hot over the border, missiles and mortars used to fall not far away. Youth here learned the difference between the munitions. Now things are quiet. There is a seemingly endless Covid lockdown and the Israeli airport is closed.
Thierry Laskart, a friend and a tour guide, who lives in El Rum, is one of many affected by the pandemic. There is no work for tour guides these days. The government isn’t providing small businesses enough support. A large class of Israelis are out of work, strangled by the new regulations and the seeming inability of the country to manage the crisis. It’s not the only crisis; Laskart says the wolves on the Golan have also increased, attacking more cattle. There also seems to be a plague of stray dogs about, people keep dumping off dogs in this area for some reason.
After some warm coffee and a look at the permaculture in the area, we drove through the Druze towns of Buqata and Majdal Shams to see if the Hermon was open. It’s not. But the snow is still visible. A short dogsled took us to an old fort that overlooks Syria. Here, once upon a time, the Syrian rebels used to threaten Al Khadr, a Druze village across the valley in Syria. Now that conflict is forgotten too. The lynching of the Syrian wounded is forgotten by most Israelis. It happened near here. Who today recalls that? Anger over Jihadist threats to Khadr led to an attack on an ambulance taking wounded from Syria through Majdal Shams.
Down on the road between the large Druze towns there is what looks like a new fried chicken place. Huny Huny is the improbable name. The chicken is good. But business is slow. Many of the bars and restaurants that once catered to tourists here are not only closed but do not know when business will return.
The Golan today is as pretty as ever. The rainfall has led to an explosion of green everywhere. Unfortunately, the public at large currently cannot enjoy it. The locals enjoy it but they too are suffering from various problems, whether a lack of tourist income or arguments between bureaucracies. Israel’s Little Switzerland feels isolated, bucolic and at peace, if struggling financially.