Israel’s Alaska, the Golan, stays calm amid the gathering storm

Residents of the Heights see the bloody transformation across the border in Syria, but believe they — and the army — can cope with ‘whatever the future throws at us’

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

The new border fence as seen from the Druze village of Majdal Shams (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)
The new border fence as seen from the Druze village of Majdal Shams (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)

A shallow sea of green wheat rustled in the wind. Up ahead, to the north, the white ridge of Mount Hermon presided over the central Golan Heights, lending the sloped and canyon-cut prairie a foreign benevolence. And to the east, David Khallas’ knee-high saplings, some 2,000 young citrus trees, stood in orderly rows – indifferent to the nearby menace of Syria and the security fence being built some 10 yards from the grove.

Khallas and his wife Michal – they get along far better than their biblical namesakes – settled in the Golan Heights in the summer of 2006. When they arrived there was still talk of land for peace. Both of them moved knowing there was a certain chance they would be uprooted. Since then, they have brought two children into the world and acquired a dog. They have built their house with their own hands. They have helped invigorate a wizened HaShomer HaTzair kibbutz, creating a thriving secular and religious community in its place. And so, when it came time to choose their 30-dunam plot for agriculture, a gift of the government, they considered the virtues of tangerines over olives and of different soil types but never gave any thought at all to Syria.

“I didn’t think about the border at all. There were 40 years of absolute quiet here,” said Khallas. “It was the quietest place in the country.”

The northernmost Jewish village in the Golan, Neve Ativ, beneath Mount Hermon (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)
The northernmost Jewish village in the Golan, Neve Ativ, beneath Mount Hermon (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)

Since planting the saplings by hand and laying the irrigation tubes and performing the myriad tasks that a grower must do to keep his or her crop alive and well, a war has broken out across the border. At least 60,000 people — maybe 90,000 — have been killed. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey and Jordan. Earlier this week seven injured Syrians were taken for treatment at Ziv Hospital in northern Israel. And Al-Qaeda-like elements have seized control of some of the border towns and vowed to restore to Syria the land that President Bashar Assad failed to return.

Israel, in response, has begun building a border fence, a 15-foot-high barrier of finger-width steel bars topped with razor blades that is meant to keep both refugees and, predominantly, terrorists out of the country. The army, in recent months, has increased the number and quality of the troops stationed in the Golan Heights. Commander of the Nahal infantry brigade, Col. Yehuda Fuchs, soon to take up a position on the Golan Heights, told Ynet last week, “I’ve been in the IDF for 25 years and have never done operational duty there with a unit of conscripted soldiers.” Instead, the hilltop observation posts along the eastern flank of the Golan were once the exclusive domain of sleepy reservists, their glances shifting from their binoculars to their books and back again. Now, Fuchs said, a complex terror attack “would not be a surprise.”

A November 2012 view of the Syrian town of Quneitra, where battles raged earlier this week (Photo credit: Flash 90)
A November 2012 view of the Syrian town of Quneitra, where battles raged earlier this week (Photo credit: Flash 90)

The chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, warned the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee before the summer recess that the region could become “like Sinai” – an ungoverned terror hotbed.

Others, such as Kochavi’s predecessor, Amos Yadlin, believe that the disintegration of the Syrian regime and its advanced war machine is “good news” for Israel, with the potential threat from Assad, though dormant since 1973, dwarfing the potential impact of the global jihad terror cells that, along with the Free Syrian Army, seized yet another army position near the Israeli border earlier this week.

There is a cold truth in that analysis. During Israel’s 15-year occupation of south Lebanon, from the close of the Lebanon War until the 2000 withdrawal, Israel lost a total of 306 soldiers, including the 73 who were killed in Lebanon-bound helicopters over Israel in 1997. During the three weeks of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (and predominantly during the first three days of the war), Israel lost 783 soldiers on the northern front. Syrian commando troops seized Mount Hermon, and their tanks, early in the war, were stopped a mere seven kilometers from the Sea of Galilee.

But what is absent from the analysis is the psychological toll of terror, the slow drip, the recurring headlines, the demoralization of the civilians – in short, the very elements that pried Israel from the Gaza Strip and south Lebanon. As the shadow of the war in Syria draws near, the Times of Israel spoke with Golan residents about the uncertain future and the flammable present in the 440-square-mile plateau.

Yehuda Harel and Ori Kallner

Today there are roughly 30,000 Israeli civilians living in the Golan Heights. One third of them are Druze residents, who remained in four villages during the war and have, for years, worked their way into Israeli society while publicly proclaiming their desire to return to Syria. The remaining 20,000 residents are Jewish. They live in 32 rural communities and one large town. And over the past year, despite the forbidding forecasts, there has been an overall growth – including births, deaths, departures and arrivals – of 1,000 residents, said Yehuda Harel, the director of strategic planning for the Golan Regional Council.

Harel was one of the first settlers to come up to the Golan Heights. He arrived on September 1, 1967 and joined a group of young, secular kibbutznikim in a eucalyptus grove near a stream in Aalleiqa. Forty-six years later, seated in a spare office adorned with a photocopy of a 1944 train schedule from Haifa to Damascus, he was in a pleasantly philosophical mood. He did not tout the fact that the Golan – first mentioned in the Bible in Deuteronomy and home to several Jewish communities during the Roman era and again during the waning years of Ottoman rule – provides the state of Israel with one third of its water and 10 percent of its milk. Nor was he willing to indulge this reporter on the strategic importance of the sloped plateau and the way the lookout posts along the 40-mile eastern border dominate the Syrian landscape.

“Our political direction right now is to avoid all politics,” he said. “I don’t want to say how important it is from a security perspective that we never left the Golan because that will immediately invite someone else to say the opposite.” Instead, he said, normalization of the Golan means that “it’s like Netanya. No one ever argues about its importance.”

Cutting corn on the lower Golan Heights, near Kibbutz Mevo Hama (Photo credit: Shay Levy/ Flash 90)
Cutting corn on the lower Golan Heights, near Kibbutz Mevo Hama (Photo credit: Shay Levy/ Flash 90)

Pressed nonetheless to address the likely rupture of the tranquility on the Golan, he thought back to his earliest days here. At the time, the group that founded the Golan’s first settlement, Kibbutz Merom Golan, sought to plant legumes in the Quneitra Valley rather than fruit trees. In October 1973 they believed that any Syrian provocation on the northern front would translate into an Israeli siege of Damascus within 48 hours. “There is an inherent frustration in this exercise,” he said, “because we just cannot know the future.”

He suggested visiting a woman named Eva in old Jaffa who is expert at reading the future in black coffee grinds. “She is not better than (military) intelligence but she is definitely cheaper,” he said, adding, finally, that his impression was that the Syrian army was no longer an offensive threat to the Golan, aside from missiles – “which threaten Tel Aviv, not us” – and that terror, “if it arises, is something we’ll deal with.”

The deputy head of the Golan Regional Council, Ori Kallner, a young religious moshavnik from Keshet in the southern Golan, is in charge of civilian security in the region. He said he was in touch with the division and brigade commanders in the Golan Heights on a daily basis, mostly in order to coordinate the conflicting needs of cattle grazing and army maneuvers, but that “we are not closing our eyes” to the war in Syria.

The “vanishing regime,” he said, would create “a comfortable breeding ground” for terror and that this was something the civilians had to understand and prepare for – but not worry about. The IDF, which is building a 40-mile-long border fence with highly advanced surveillance equipment, “is taking serious actions and changing its lifestyle,” he said, “so that I won’t have to change mine.”

Israel’s easternmost settlement

Katzrin, where the Times of Israel spoke with Kallner, is in the central Golan Heights. Traveling northeast, to the religious communal village of Alonei Habashan, the easternmost settlement in Israel, offers a shift in perspective. “We’re 500 meters from the border,” said Yiska Dekel, a second-grade teacher and mother of one who serves as the head of the community board.

A native of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, and a one-time resident of the more isolated settlement of Pnei Kedem, Dekel described the region as “Switzerland.” During our conversation, a heavy explosion shuddered somewhere in the dark – her husband, Yaron, said it came from the Quneitra region in Syria – but she claimed to have long ago been inured to such background noises. “I don’t hear the muezzin or the sounds of gunfire,” she said.

But she has instituted change in the 56-family village. The gate to the village, once open to all through-hikers on the Golan Trail, is now locked. The same is true of the nursery and the kindergarten. Last month, she established a security squad of former combat soldiers who have weapons and can respond to a breach in security, and she’s planning a village-wide drill this week. Recently she also requested of the army that they provide two soldiers to guard the kindergarten during the day, noting that while the adults all go off to work the children are alone in the village. “Basically,” she said, “although we’ve stepped it up a notch, we’re now acting like every other place in the country.”

When people go to sleep at night, or travel abroad, she said, it was previously unheard of to lock the door. Today, she said, she seeks a balance between those “who are shanti and those who are hysterical.”

Wind farms, like this one near Kibbutz Ein Zivan, may grant the Golan Heights energy independence within five years (Photo credit: Flash 90)
Wind farms, like this one near Kibbutz Ein Zivan, may grant the Golan Heights energy independence within five years (Photo credit: Flash 90)


Farther up the road, at the foot of Mount Hermon, is Masade, a Druze village of 3,700 residents that seems to have undergone an even more significant shift on account of the war. Here, too, some of the residents channeled Switzerland when discussing the Golan Heights but they, members of a stateless ethnicity in the Middle East, were referring to the historical need for neutrality. Murcel Hamed, the secretary of the town, said that the Druze villages, like the mountainous European state, “have always tried to keep good relations with everyone.”

This is why it is “only natural” that some 70-80 percent of the Druze still in Syria, by his estimation, have remained faithful to the Assad regime. At one point this was the case in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1981. Only a small minority of the Druze population accepted Israeli citizenship. That is because over the years Israel has “failed at convincing the Druze” that the Golan would never be returned, and therefore “they’ve acted as I would recommend them to,” Yehuda Harel said.

But that orientation toward Syria, with the demise of the Alawite regime, seems to be shifting. To be sure, each of the four villages and the family clans within them have a different position on the conflict, but in Masade, considered the most middle-of-the-road of the villages, this reporter heard the sort of forthright comments that would have been unimaginable several years ago. “The military boots have trampled every mind and opinion in Syria,” said Nadim Safadi, an employee at a Golan-based alternative energy wind farm.

He described the events next door as “the stench from the neighbor” that could no longer be avoided and said that Syria “was only here for 21 years” and that “there’s not going to be any more talk about giving back the Golan, not for the next 50 years,” and that therefore it was understandable that the young people in the village were turning more toward Israel. “Culturally speaking they are Israeli in almost every way,” he said. “They are growing ponytails and not mustaches.”

Safadi suggested that, just as it took Moses 40 years to rid the Israelites of their “slavery mentality,” so, too, would Syria require a period of rebuilding. But he dismissed all Arab affairs and military intelligence estimates about the birth of an Islamist state to Israel’s northeast. “Propaganda,” he said.

Instead, he argued that Syria, unlike Egypt, has no history of Islamist extremism, and likened the current war in Syria to the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925. “It’s just like the rebellion against the French,” he said. “They waged a jihad and then went on to become a secular state.”

He also predicted that Hezbollah, perched on a branch in Assad’s tree, would be stripped of its arms in the post-Assad future.

Israel’s Alaska

Driving south from Masade on Route 87, through road blocks of basalt that are meant to close the traffic to oncoming tank columns, I weighed his rosy assessment and considered the residents of this windswept frontier, where the fog settles in for the winter months and the summer sun bakes the plateau into a brittle, thistle-ridden surface. In February – Israel’s kindest month – the yellow, lilac and reds of the wildflowers are forced to compete with the bullet-ridden army barracks and the all-too-accessible history of war. And yet, so many of the residents see and hear the massive transformation next door, broadcast with long torrents of fire and the thud of artillery, and seem hardly concerned. Why? How?

David Khallas, who hosted me at his house in Natur with home-made sushi and home-made ice cream, suggested that I speak with David Spellman.

If Israel has an Alaska of its own, which is admittedly a bit of a stretch, then the Golan Heights is a strong contender. Most everyone is from someplace else. They left one lifestyle for another. And few have made as dramatic or impassioned a shift as Spellman.

Spellman's kibbutz, Ein Zivan, earlier this winter (Photo credit: Hamad Almakt/ Flash 90)
Spellman’s kibbutz, Ein Zivan, earlier this winter (Photo credit: Hamad Almakt/ Flash 90)

An Irish Catholic from Leeds whose father’s uncle was the archbishop of New York, Cardinal John Francis Spellman, he met me in a café in Katzrin and, with a knitted kippa on his head, said a blessing before sipping from his cappuccino.

Spellman turned his back on religion at age 14, calling the virgin birth “a lot of nonsense.” He knew Jews only through the teachings of the church and a small neighborhood grocery shop that was open on Sundays. It carried the “strange smells of eastern Europe” and was so foreign as to seem frightening, he said. After university in Leeds he worked for a Jewish-owned textile company and was sent to Germany. He had never learnt about the Holocaust – “not in church or home or school.” He said he witnessed there a stunning lack of contrition, a sort of acceptance that veered from “oh well” to “too bad it wasn’t done better.”

“It drove me crazy that there was no lesson learnt in terms of European culture,” he said. “There should have been a revolution in thought.”

Charmed by “the chutzpah” of the notion that Jews would no longer offer themselves up for persecution, he came to Kibbutz Gonen in the summer of 1967, right after the war, and joined the first group of settlers on the Golan. Four months at the old officers’ barracks in Quneitra left him with jaundice and, after a year on the Golan Heights, he returned to Britain, parted with his family – his father severed their ties – and moved back to Gonen.

Secular and not yet converted to Judaism, Spellman served as the secretary of the kibbutz for many years and, in 1983, went to Ukraine and worked with the then-clandestine Nativ organization, which helped Jews behind the Iron Curtain. Their desire to move from the Soviet Union to Los Angeles was inexplicable to him and slowly, after years working to build the land of Israel, he said he realized he also needed, despite his apprehension about religion, to embrace “the Torah of Israel.”

Observant and fearing for the future of the Golan, he came down to Tel Aviv in 1994 and staged a 13-day hunger strike against a possible withdrawal from the Heights. Then he moved back to the Golan, and helped found the religious settlement of Keshet and later the mixed settlement of Natur. Today, still not entirely at home in the Orthodox world, he lives on the privatized and secular kibbutz Ein Zivan despite his observance, and views with humor his son’s decision to live as a Buddhist on the southwest coast of Ireland. “I can’t say he has strayed from the path of his father.”

He had several theories on the residents’ immunity to fretfulness and suggested that, taken as a whole, they might explain the phenomenon. The first relates to personal safety. “I may have once had a key to my house,” he said, “but I certainly don’t know where it is now.”

The second related to the army and the way it is part of daily life in the Golan. “We live in a large army camp,” said Spellman, noting that the noise of tank shells and rifle fire is no longer noticeable to him and that the robustness of the army’s presence, its training and troop movements, were a comfort.

Vocation also has something to do with it, he suggested. Farmers and agriculturalists, some 20 percent of the residents on the Golan, have to fend off fears of financial ruin every season. One good year does not guarantee another. Frosts, flies and droughts lurk around every corner. In addition, he said, many of those who came to the Golan started on a new career path and have a great deal of faith in their own ability to overcome hardship.

And finally, though all of the communities in the Golan are different, he suggested that they all share a common experience – persevering in the face of personal disaster. Ever since the Israeli government’s June 19, 1967 cabinet decision to leave the Golan Heights in return for full peace, as documented in Gershom Gorenberg’s “The Accidental Empire,” a sword has hung over the settlement endeavor in the Golan Heights.

“All the world is worried and everyone here is just carrying on,” said Spellman, “because it’s in the DNA of the community.”

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