How appropriate was it, that on the day I met Yossi for the first time, we also traveled together to the Golan? After all, we did meet in virtual-world first on Syria Comment! So it made perfect sense, and I’m glad we did it. Although we were hoping to meet more people than we did, and conduct 1R1F-style interviews, we did manage to speak to a few, and to generate certain impressions that may be worthy of sharing.
I picked Yossi up in the morning in Haifa, and we drove straight to the Golan (about 1.5-2 hours away). We already had our morning-coffee at the beach-highway cafe “Maxim” (where in October 2003, a 29 year-old female lawyer from Jenin blew herself up, killing some 21 Israeli Jews and Arabs), so we were all “tanked” up.
One thing worth noting, on the way up, is just how natural the ride feels. In the past, I still remember a distinct separation between the Heights and the valley below. Perhaps it was the old Bailey-bridges we’d cross, or the quality of the roads that connected the Golan to the rest of Israel. But today, the bridges are modern, as are the roads. We left Haifa, and “suddenly” found ourselves on the Golan. Just like that.
Some general impressions both Yossi and I shared of the Golan: In the past (20 years ago), the feeling on the Golan was of a heavy militarized zone. Today, it is a sort of strangely serene limbo. A kind of wilderness-on-hold, without much urban development, and still dotted with fields of land mines throughout. Stalactites can be seen growing out of old structures that are left in ruins (ex: old Syrian Officers’ School near Kuneitra).
The settlement project: We asked ourselves, why is it that after nearly 3 decades of annexation, with zero security issues (no Hamas, no Qassams, no Intifadas, etc.), absolutely gorgeous landscape and (still) relatively inexpensive real-estate, only some 26,000 Jews reside on the Golan? It is a question I hope Dr. Yigal Kipnis will help us answer.
Golan resident impressions: Of the people we met and “interviewed”, three types could be found – Some believe the Golan will remain ours forever, others seem resigned to whatever fate will befall them, and still others seem genuinely fearful of the current Israeli government. It was interesting to hear a shop-owner express utter distrust in Netanyahu, saying “He’s the only one that will give back the Golan!…” He further suggested that (as a result of this fear) most Golan residents voted Labor. We later checked this claim, and found it wasn’t true. But the fear of Likud and its head is real.
Ohalo College: At the town of Katzrin, referred to by some as the “capital of the Golan”, sits a quiet little college, fully integrating Jews and Arabs, mostly in the fields of teacher-training. Arabs from villages and towns in the Galilee, as well as Druze from the Golan study in this college, as well as (presumably) Jews from throughout the area. Our more-than-obvious attempts at interrogating a gaggle of young Arab female students about the Golan was met with little more than childish giggling. The current tension on the political arena, between Israel and Syria, seemed not to be of any special importance to these young students. We talked to the head of one of the instruction programs in the college, who expressed the same kind of resignation to fate that others have. She said that she used to be concerned every 5 years or so, but now is just going about her daily routine and program planning.
Our ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) Experience: Hoping to get a different feel from the Golan than most passers-by do, Yossi and I hired a literally down-to-earth tour of the region with native tour guides from the Golan. We started out at Kibbutz Merom Golan (underneath Mt. Bental), through the agricultural fields, stopping at an old half-destroyed building near Kuneitra that once served as Syria’s Officers’ School in the region. The first of our guides was a young Israeli that had just finished his basic army service. His parents moved to the Golan years ago, and he was born there. The second was a young Druze from Masaada, who had obviously lived his entire life on the Golan. The latter told us that most Druze will stay on the Golan (regardless of who rules it), but some are “blacklisted” in Syria, and will have to move out, probably into the Galilee. He believed that won’t be a problem, because of strong family ties to other Druze throughout the Galilee.
When we asked our guides why, in their opinion, hasn’t Israel leveled the grounds of the old structure and did something useful with the land (the area is surrounded by fields and dairies), they didn’t have a very good answer. “It’s for history’s sake”. The emerging feeling is that despite the de-jure annexation of the Golan, it is very much in a state of suspended animation. All the old and bombed structures and the mine fields are sitting there awaiting to be returned wholesale to the Syrians, for them to deal with this hot potato, when the time is right.
Our favorite Cafe: Reported on in the past (on Syria Comment and Creative Syria), “Coffee Anan” was packed with tourists, Evangelical Christians who seemed quite resolute that Israel should remain on the Golan, other Jewish groups from the U.S., as well as religious Jews from Israel. I had never seen the place so full. The gentleman at the cashier seemed to think that the Golan would be returned. The pictures on the walls are of main tourist attractions in Syria. We asked ourselves what their purpose might be. The answers ranged from Hopes for Peace to Greater Israel…
Each visit to the Golan invokes conflicting emotions for me, which over the years have sorted themselves out, but still catch me off guard every now and then. I am of course an avid believer in the return of the Golan to its rightful owner – Syria and the Syrian people. While I am well aware of all that has occurred on these hills, and on the plains below on either side, I still believe this territory is not ours to hold, nor ours to keep. And yet, when you are up there, when the fresh strong wind is blowing in your face, while you observe and inhale the beauty of this Middle-Eastern Prairie, the most primitive instincts of ownership kick in. Suddenly I find myself asking “Wait a minute, why don’t we deserve this place?” And then I recall an old Palestinian gentleman I once met in E. Jerusalem, who said to me “Only fools think that conquered land should be returned.” And suddenly I like that saying. Because it is truly so beautiful up there, and so painful to consider giving back.
But we know what must be done, and we will support it.
(More to follow in Part II)