These last three days have been a whirlwind. We’ve slept at the mediterranean, on the beach of the sea of galilee, and at a spring far above the sea of galilee. We’ve had our cars broken into and valuables stolen, sang songs in the backlot of an Israeli police station, and paid no money for accommodation but lots of money for parking tickets. We’ve seen the place where just weeks ago Palestinian refugees were killed trying to cross back into their native country, and we’ve drank coffee with a Druze man who thinks the Druze communities in the Golan Heights are better off under Israeli control than they were under the Syrian administration.
Since I had my camera stolen, I don’t have any photos for you. But I do have some stories to tell. Like how Ahmud, a Druze-Israeli led us to the sight of the Nakba and Naksa day protests, in a Majdal Sham, a town which only a week ago was packed with international reporters and is now empty but for its local population. And how he got us up to the ski hill on Mount Hermon where he works despite it being too late in the day (the soldiers opened the gate for him). And then how when we were not able to go up the lift because it was too late in the day, we met his goat-herder friend on the way down who sang and led us in a dance to celebrate Stephanie’s (one of the participants) birthday. He then took us to his house, where he offered us tea, biscuits and cake, watermelon, bananas, perfectly ripe peaches, and grapes. He told us about his job as a ski instructor – how he could make huge sums every day teaching private lessons in Italy and Austria, and proceed blow all of it that night at the discotheque.
The theft itself is a sad story, and especially frightening for the one who had their passport stolen (they had to leave the trip to go to the Canadian Embassy, but it is mostly sorted now and they have temporary documents which will serve their needs). It happened while we were carrying our things back to the car from the beach on the mediterranean – we’d taken one load, and by the time we arrived with the second our things were gone. A local told us: “this is the number one place to get your things stolen in Israel”. We learned a bit about the local police as well – of the two volunteer officers who came to the scene, one forcefully told me the crime had been done by Arabs, and the other told another member of our group that it had been done by Ethiopians. We had to file a police report, and get the windows fixed or switch the rental cars with different ones. But in moments of crisis there is the positive as well – like when Noah took my guitar out of the cars while the police were fingerprinting them, despite their protests, and proceeded to lead us all in song in the backlot of the police station while the cars were looked over. And magically, we were able to get the windows fixed, and promptly, and not pay for it, despite it not really being covered by our insurance policy (one of our leaders, David, is a wonder at smooth-talking situations like this).
Standing at the Syrian border, at the site of the recent carnage was an intense experience. You could see the trails of disturbed ground where people ran down the slopes of the shouting hill. Ahmud’s explanation of what happened was quite anti-Palestinian, questioning why Palestinian refugees want to enter the Golan heights if they are from Gaza or the West Bank. But it didn’t matter much, most of us had seen video of the event while it was happening, and read reports of the deaths (various figures have been cited, I don’t know which one is the consensus - somewhere between 4 and 30 people killed by some combination of mines and bullets). Standing on the border you can see conflict right in front of you, in the architecture, in the walls and fences, the place is the definition of confrontational.
Other experiences of borders on this trip were different, though. We stood at the Dado lookout at the northern tip of Israel, where you can see Lebanon and Syria. There the border looks totally arbitrary; there is a town, and then the farmland right next to the town is Lebanon. We drove up to the border at the “good fence“, so called due to the number of Palestinian refugees who re entered through it in the 70s while that portion of south Lebanon was under Fatah control, and the border seemed to be abandoned with the gate open. Not the hard-core Israeli security apparatus we were expecting. Later on, driving to a point above the sea of Galilee we travelled for a while along the Jordanian border, surrounded by fences with frequent signs that said “Danger: Mines”.
The Golan Heights is not like the West Bank. It is occupied territory, acquired in war and annexed by the victorious power, but Israel does not treat the people there with the same contempt as Palestinians. For instance, there are no Israeli settlers in Druze towns, it is not impossible to get a building permit, and houses are not regularly destroyed. It is refreshing to see the state of Israel treating Arabs decently, but the caveat is that Druze do not necessarily identify as Arab. Perhaps the meta-reason for this situation is the relative unimportance of the Golan Heights from a religious-historical perspective for the Jews.
That said, the Golan is the place where the scars of war are more explicit than anywhere else I have visited in Israel/Palestine. The amount of mines is crazy – wherever you drive there are fences along the side of the road warning you have mines. And for much of the territory there are no inhabitants, just the occasional burned out building covered in bullet holes (I saw one with a Fatah graffiti on the side, actually). Driving down from the Golan Heights to the sea of Galilee feels like driving through old battle fields, where the fighting was fierce and little has been done to the land since the end of the war.
The last night of the trip was spent overlooking the sea of Galilee. From where we stayed, you could easily see the whole lake. What was striking is just how small it is. It has an area of just 166 square kilometers – less than half the area of Okanagan lake (350 square kilometers). But it is not like just any lake in North America – it is much more strategically important (the only large freshwater lake in the region), and is a significant piece in the conflict between Israel, Jordan and Syria over territory in the Golan region. Peace talks between Syria and Israel failed in the 2000s largely due to Israel’s unwillingless to give Syria any access to the Sea of Galilee (during the Mandate period, Syria controlled much of the sea’s eastern shoreline).
I’m not sure how much being in these areas actually helps one understand the conflict better – I don’t think doing local tours and talking to people is any replacement for the work of reading historical documents and trying to get a sense of the motivations and limitations of the different power actors. At the same time, it seems appropriate and human to get a sense of what the major political moves mean for people on the ground, even if you can only meet a small portion of them.
EDIT: a bit more poking around shows another side to the Syrian-Israeli conflict – many villages were depopulated by Israel during the ’67 and ’73 wars, where people were forcibly transfered and their houses and property subsequently destroyed. For instance, it seems that the settlement of Neve Ativ, the site of the ski resort we visited, was built on the ruins of Jubata Ez-Zeit, a Syrian town of between one and two thousand people which was depopulated and destroyed in the ’67 war.