Print and photos published by Tablet Magazine.
When Israel was suspected of bombing weapons sites in Syria nearly two weeks ago, the Israeli government reacted coolly to Syrian threats of war. Bashar Assad, the common wisdom went, was too beleaguered to try a serious retaliation. But Israelis in the Golan Heights think differently. They hear the sounds of the fighting just over the border, and warily note when the occasional rocket or mortar lands in the Golan. Now, some Israelis are drilling emergency plans, seeking weapons permits, and recalling the 1973 war when Syrian troops marched across the Golan.
In Alonei Habashan, just before the Shavuot holiday, community manager Israel Bar told me the Syrian civil war has changed life there. Alonei Habashan is a religious moshav of 56 families. The moshav grows grapes for the Golan winery and runs a modest guest house. In the last few weeks, Bar said, two mortars fell in an open area just inside the moshav’s fence. On the side of the road that sweeps around Alonei Habashan is a concrete arsenal painted blue and locked with a black dial that looks like a safe. Usually, weapons sit here just in case, but Bar said last month he applied for permits from the army to allow locals to hold guns in their homes. The moshav council has guided each family for which bomb shelter to flee to in case of emergency.
“We’ve lived here quietly for years, and all the sudden we feel threatened,” Bar said. “We hear the noise, and we had mortars land in the community….We are more alert. We are more suspicious. If we once walked near the border without a problem, today we need permission from the army.”
The Golan Heights are a grassy, hilly territory, which Israel captured by Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel held onto the land as a strategic lookout on Syria. Rusted-out tanks and old concrete bunkers adorn the roadsides, holdovers from at least 40 years ago. Most look like they have long been abandoned, but the growing tension on the Syrian border is breathing new life into these relics of war.
Elisha Yelin remembers wartime all too well. He was among the young cowboys and farmers who founded Kibbutz Merom Golan, on the Syrian border, four months after the Golan was conquered. On the night of the Yom Kippur War, Yelin said all the women and children were evacuated, the men were taken to military duty car by car, and he was left in charge of the eleven remaining men who were to gather their belongings before heading off to the reserves.
Back then, he said, Syria’s troops were regimented and even dogmatic. One division blazed into the Golan Heights, only to stop midway while waiting for the second division to catch up. That delay cost Syria the Golan, he said. Today that solidarity is rare as Syria dissolves into sectarian violence.
“It’s not a war situation. It’s not army versus army. This is the most dangerous situation – it’s army against small groups,” Yelin said. He said it reminded him of the situation between 1973 and 1974, when Merom Golan suffered constant attacks from Syrians, which killed four members of the kibbutz. But Yelin felt little of the existential worries that weigh on the residents of Alonei Habashan.
“They are younger than me,” he said. “They weren’t on the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War and not in the Yom Kippur War or in the hard days after. They came to the Golan when it was absolutely quiet and safe, and for them it’s the first time they are on the front. But I understand them – we were with the same feeling in the Yom Kippur War.”
Speaking of the airstrikes, Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Israel most likely struck at Syria to prevent the Hezbollah Islamic militants from getting more sophisticated weaponry from Iran.
“Because Syria is witnessing a breakup and becoming a no-man’s land, this transfer of strategic weaponry to Hezbollah or other radicals is becoming commonplace,” he said.
Rabi said Israel would like the strike to be seen as a simple targeting of weapons. But he guessed that someone in Syria – whether Bashar Assad, Islamic fundamentalist rebels or Hezbollah – would use that strike as a pretext for an attack on Israel.
Yelin drove down to the border crossing between Syria and Israel. Though the two states are enemies, UN peacekeepers pass through the border despite increasing reports of kidnappings. Druze farmers send thousands of pounds of apples into southern Syria, and sometimes Syrian brides cross countries through the small opening in the frontier, manned by Israel, Syria, the UN and the Red Cross.
The narrow road down to the border was lined with apple trees and bike paths – nothing that would suggest a dangerous region. On Israel Radio, newscasters played tape of Syria’s Minister of Information announcing that all the Golan Heights belongs to Damascus. Yelin looked at the Syrian flag flying high across the border crossing.
“I have no problem with the Syrian flag,” Yelin said. “This is a sign of government, of control, of something you can trust. I will be afraid if there will be no Syrian flag.”
For now, Israelis continue to come to the Golan on day trips, stopping to eat hummus in Druze villages or to go cherry picking and horseback riding in one of Israel’s most scenic areas. But for the first time in four decades, Israelis are pondering who they may face across the frontier should the government in Damascus collapse.
Photo by Daniella Cheslow.