Visiting the Golan Heights flashpoint in Israel
MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights, Israel – It’s almost noon in this village in northeast Israel, and to reach here from Nazareth, I drove along a winding road that took me high into the mountains past wineries, apple orchards, cattle ranches, thick forests, waterfalls, streams and a ski resort that’s open a few weeks during wintertime.
Like virtually all of Israel, this area abounds in biblical sites and ancient history, and along the way I stopped at the base of 9,200-foot Mt. Hermon to visit Nimrod’s Fortress, a 13th century medieval Crusader castle named for Nimrod, the legendary giant hunter, warrior, great-grandson of Noah and builder of the Tower of Babel who is described in Genesis 10:18 as “the mighty one in the earth.”
Here in Majdal Shams, its residents are Israeli citizens and primarily members of the Druze, an ethnic, linguistic and religious sect that combines tenets of the Moslem, Christian and Jewish faiths. Small communities of Christians and Israeli Jews live here as well.
Many Druze are farmers, shopkeepers and career members of the Israeli Army, and several have become generals. Although most villagers wear contemporary Western clothing, a few older residents are attired in traditional dress, such as women who wear floor-length black gowns and men who wear baggy black trousers that date back to the days of Ottoman Turk rule.
While having lunch at a local sidewalk café, I saw a white Toyota pickup truck with the large black letters “UN” painted on its doors and roof pull up front and two men wearing military uniforms emerge.
They sat down at the table next to mine and in minutes we were chatting. Both had Irish accents, for they are attached to the Irish Army’s UN contingent, which along with soldier-peacemakers from Fiji, the Netherlands, India, Nepal, Japan and the Philippines, comprise the 1,200-member United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDORF, which patrols the truce line between Israel and neighboring Syria.
“The UN assignment is to keep Israel and Syria from each other’s throats,” one of the men told me as we chowed down on hamburgers.
“Israel and Syria are separated by a high barbed wire fence that runs about 50 miles. It’s very dangerous here. Anything can happen at any time,” he said, reminding me that just a week before I arrived here two Israeli Patriot missiles had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that ventured into Israeli air space near the Golan Heights. Israel and Syria have been “at each other’s throats” as the Irishman told me since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during its victorious 1967 Six-Day War with the Arab nations. Today, that animosity between the two nations continues unabated because Israel annexed the Golan Heights following the Six Day War and Syrian dictator Bashad al-Assad claims Israel is currently backing rebels seeking to overthrow his regime, a charge Israel denies.
Following our lunch, the Irish soldiers drove back to their unit and I walked about a half-mile from here to the 10-foot-high border fence. Israeli soldiers were guarding a gate in the barrier which is opened for UN patrols and Syrians with “special needs,” I was informed. On the Syrian side of the fence, I could see bombed out buildings in the distance and several Syrian soldiers lounging around a nearby guard post.
Those Syrians “with special needs” I learned include individuals who have made appointments via cell phone with medical specialists at the regional Israeli medical center located at Safed, which is west of Majdal Shams. Many others are refugees from the Syrian civil war or residents of close-by Syrian villages who are unable to receive decent medical treatment in Syria, or any medical treatment there whatsoever. For those Syrians unable to travel by bus to the Safed hospital, which is about a half-hour drive, the hospital provides ambulances and vans. Many Syrian women give birth at the hospital and Syrians of box sexes and all ages travel there for routine and emergency services and visits to doctors specializing in diseases of the eye, heart, cancer, diabetes, etc. There is usually no charge for these services.
One of the hospital’s patients was a teenage boy who had lost both legs after a Syrian warplane flew over his village and dropped a bomb near his home, which also killed his two cousins. Syrian authorities ordered the air attack because they believed rebel soldiers were harbored there, I was told.
The carnage in the land of the Bible continues. It is impossible to even guess if it will ever end.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard. This is his fourth and final column from the Middle East.