All's quiet on the Syrian front

Despite grabbing the limelight lately, few signs of tension visible on the Golan Heights.

golan heights 88 (photo credit: courtesy photo)
golan heights 88
(photo credit: courtesy photo)
The first snow has yet to fall on Israel's sole ski resort on Mount Hermon, and at Moshav Neveh Ativ, which operates the site, they're already considering the implications of a second year without a ski season. In the resort's huge parking lot, the IDF's entire snow fleet is parked, unneeded as of now. There are rows of white camouflage-painted tractors, snow-cats and snow-mobiles used in a real winter to ferry personnel and supplies to the bases and observation posts high up on the mountain, guarding Israel's northernmost approach, looking deep into Syrian territory, to Damascus and far beyond. However, these were the only military vehicles to be seen this week at any point on the Syrian border surrounding the Golan Heights. The Golan has been in the news quite a lot over the last few days, featured in the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, in intelligence briefings on the Syrians' intentions, a fresh dispute on water rights and the unsolved murder of a 13-year-old girl. Through all this, a significant anniversary has been overlooked. Twenty-five years ago this week, the Knesset, in a rather unorthodox express vote, passed the Golan Heights Law, completing all the legislative stages, cabinet, committee and plenum readings in one day. The bill, which mandated the full application of Israeli law and order on the Heights captured in 1967 from Syria, caused an international commotion, with Syria putting its army on alert and president Ronald Reagan temporarily freezing the strategic treaty between Israel and the United States and arms shipments to Israel. Prime minister Menachem Begin, who had been hospitalized for a broken hip and sat in the Knesset in a wheelchair, retorted to US ambassador Sam Lewis, "My leg might be broken, but my knees aren't bent." A quarter of a century later, Israel is getting mixed signals from its biggest ally on the future of the Golan. The Baker-Hamilton report urged Israel to enter into comprehensive negotiations with the Syrians, with withdrawal from the Heights its ultimate outcome. Barely a week after its publication, President George W. Bush issued a presidential declaration scathingly attacking the human rights situation in Syria. It seemed as if Bush was rejecting the report out of hand, but that wasn't the last word on the subject. Throughout the '90s, the movement against withdrawal from the Heights was particularly active, lining the roads with slogans and posters and bringing tens of thousands to solidarity events. No one is planning to get the hoardings out again right now. Most of the Jewish citizens are too busy trying to come to terms with the yet unsolved murder of Ta'ir Rada in the bathroom of Nofei Golan High School in Katzrin, the Golan's only city, a type of crime unheard of in the area's tight-knitted communities. The Druse who live in three villages beneath the Hermon are as cagey as ever. Serving humous to Israeli soldiers and tourists, they smile and won't be drawn into political discussions. For now Israelis flock to the dozens of restaurants lining the main road, but who knows who's going to be in charge in a couple of years? The Syrian security services don't have a reputation for forgiveness. "We survived Yitzhak Rabin's talking, and all the rest," says Haim Budin from the Golan Heights community of Kela Alon, "We're not going to get worked up again now." Budin is an employee of the Mei Golan water company, in charge of the agricultural water supply to the northern Golan. His team last month completed the digging of a new reservoir in the "buffer agricultural zone" next to the border at the Syrian ghost town of Kuneitra. The reservoir, not particularly large at 800,000 cubic meters, succeeded nevertheless in angering the Syrians, perhaps due to its location a few hundred meters from their advance observation posts. Perhaps they just want to keep the border issue alive. The Syrian government called on Arab states to convene a special "water summit" and accused Israel of changing the course of the Yarmuk River. "We're not even close to the Yarmuk," says Budin, pointing at the canal that will allow rainfall on the Israeli side, when it finally comes, to flow into the reservoir. "I don't understand what the Syrians want, we're not changing the balance in any way. They saw what we were doing for the four months we were working, we notified the UN observers, they even came to dismantle an ancient bomb we found here during the digging." The popular image of the Golan is as an area of rivers and springs, but the Heights suffer from acute water shortages in the summer, especially for their extensive agriculture. Mei Golan, a cooperative owned by the Golan settlements, has established a network of reservoirs, totaling 40 million cubic meters, to alleviate the situation. "But the Syrians have a whole chain of reservoirs on their side," says Budin, "they can hold 200 million, they've got one just over the range." He might express surprise over the Syrian protest but he's aware of the sensitivity of his reservoir's location. "Don't go that way," he says, pointing at the eastern side, "the army doesn't like it, you might make the Syrians nervous." But he's never seen Syrian soldiers near the border. At the beginning of this week there were conflicting reports emanating from the IDF and its Intelligence branch regarding the Syrians' intentions. Head of the Intelligence Research Directorate Brig.-Gen. Yossi Beidetz told the cabinet on Sunday that President Bashar Assad was preparing his army for a war while not canceling the option of peace talks. The Syrians have lowered their alert on the Golan and withdrawn most of the additional troops that were stationed there in the summer, but at the same time advanced anti-tank missiles to the Hermon region and stepped up the manufacture of long-range missiles. The IDF is also keeping up its alert status on the Golan and will intensify training on the Heights, but there is no sign whatsoever of the kind of build-up that took place during the summer's Lebanon war. While the fighting with Hizbullah raged on, the IDF also had urgent indications of a Syrian special forces brigade deployed to the Heights and of anti-tank teams dispersed in combat positions. A large portion of the reserve soldiers that the IDF called up with emergency orders during the war were stationed on the Golan in preparation for a possible Syrian attack that at least at one point seemed imminent. For over a month, the fields close to the border were awash with tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery batteries. This week there was not a piece of military hardware to be seen in those fields. The advance observation posts, normally manned only during periods of emergency, have been closed again. The Tel a-Saki post overlooking the border in the southern Golan has reverted to its usual use during calmer times, the historical site where the Yom Kippur War broke out 33 years ago. Decommissioned Centurion tanks, artillery pieces and half-tracks are placed around the position to recreate the last battle to actually take place there, and officer cadets listen to a lecture while overlooking nearby Syrian villages. Someone left a range-chart pinned up in the observation dugout, the only reminder of a tense summer.