The Friday before Passover started we took Liz into the Golan Heights. It was a beautiful and peaceful day. Many species of birds migrating from Africa back to Europe wanted to stop and take in the natural beauty of the area as well… Little did we know what was brewing on the international scene.
“Syria will retake the Golan Heights by any means necessary, including using military force, ” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad said the Sunday following. This statement was in response to Netanyahu’s vow that the Heights “will remain in the hands of Israel forever.”
During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel fought off the invading Arab armies from the Golan. This area, 460 square miles of the most strategic land was annexed, but never officially recognized by the international communities. It encompasses the mountains forming the border with Syria to the East and Northeast and Lebanon to the North. The land overlooks the Jordan Valley and the Galilee and if retaken would leave tiny Israel more than vulnerable to volleys of rockets on the communities below – as well as direct invasion.
Today the Golan is home to many different communities: the Kurds and Druze who have escaped persecution and terror from Syria; Arabic Christians who have fled their neighboring countries – Maronites & Syriacs, mostly; and both religious and secular Jews. The rich volcanic soil is perfect for farming. Orchards and fields line the rolling hills and terraced mountainsides. In recent years, it has become a popular and successful spot for vineyards and chic boutique wineries. The Golan is a land of horses and Western-style ranches. Cattle and goats graze in their pastures and the bees are busy too. Truly a land of milk and honey.
Our family met up with American-Israeli friends. Jordan and John were buddies in Ulpan, and we love to get together with his wife and children for hikes. This day, it was a trek to Nimrod’s Fortress, the biggest Crusade Era fortress in all of Israel. Built in the 13th century by the Mamaluks under Baybars, it sits next to snow-capped Mt. Hermon, and offers sweeping views of the Golan, the lush Banias forest with its rushing springs and waterfalls, and the Hula Valley down to the Sea of Galilee.The fortress still has beautiful towers, a moat, a dungeon, keep, various chambers, and even secret passages! Supposedly, it was on this mountain that Nimrod started building the infamous Tower of Babel. Today, it’s just fun to climb the walls, scout out the fort/castle, and take in the sweeping views from all sides.
It was all quite breathtaking. The spring flowers were all in full bloom and the smell was intoxicating. We drove up to the fortress, but it still takes a few hours to see the entire structure. Thankfully, it was the day before holiday, and no one else was up there. In the week to come, the Golan will be filled with hikers, day-trippers, and families on vacation. There is hiking, kayaking down the Jordan River to the Sea of Galilee, horseback riding, and other family-friendly activities. Several resorts and spas in the area are also a popular getaway.
We parted ways with Jordan’s family mid-afternoon and continued our journey to the upper Easternmost ridge of the heights. On Mt. Bental, there is a great lookout spot, home to the (tongue-in-cheek) Coffee Anan, named for former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan. It used to be the bunkers for the Israeli Defense Forces during the Six Day War. From Mt. Bental you can see Syria uncles and personal. Bereshis Orchards in Israel goes right up to the border fence, clearly visible from the ridge. It is here that I buy the stone fruits to make my jams and preserves. Fields of flowers and lettuces, cucumbers and peppers grow along the border. In the time Syria held the Heights, there was constant war. Now it is a most idyllic setting – now that the Russians have come in and set up camp in Syria. As late as last fall, friends of mine in the Hula Valley used to hear regular bombings as Assad’s forces were fighting the rebels. Stray mortars would occasionally hit Israel from below. looking from the top of Mt. Bental lies Qunetra, all bombed out just beyond the flower fields and border fence. UN forces regularly patrol the area. (It’s like looking out from Pepperdine down the cliff to Malibu below. That close!) The Golan is also a strategically important resource because of Mt. Hermon. The snows from Mount Hermon (to the immediate West) form underground aquifers. At the base of the mountain many springs seep out of the ground forming the tributaries of the sweet Jordan River. This is an important source of water in this desert region, providing drinking water to both Israel and Jordan. Still left throughout the region, but especially on Bental from 1967 are the dugouts, underground safety tunnels and ammo storage bunkers. All quite surreal on this warm and sunny, quiet afternoon. While Liz and John scouted out the area, I took the opportunity to pray for peace and protection throughout the entire region. It was definitely a memorable experience….
The following Sunday, the Israeli government held its first ever cabinet meeting right there. A new international agreement for ending the years-long, brutal civil war in Syria, and backed by John Kerry and the Obama administration, says that this land, captured during the Six Day War, is rightfully Syria’s and must be given back. From the Heights, in the past months, Israel has carried out dozens of strikes against Hezbollah in Syria to prevent the Lebanese group from obtaining advanced weapons. It is here that Hezbollah and Iranian fighters may try to set up bases just across the border to launch attacks against Israel. I hope to go up to that ridge again very soon to continue to pray over the area…
We made it back before Shabbat on Friday, but returned on Sunday for some serious hiking. I did not know at the time that the Prime Minister would be up there, but there was definitely more of an IDF presence than on Friday. No matter: we picked up the most delicious pizza rolls from a fabulous bakery in Qiryat Shemonah (just under Lebanon), and headed off to Banias.
Banias is one of my favorite places in all of the country. I know, I always say everything is my favorite, but it is just so verdant and peaceful here. Even though you can still see the wreckage of abandoned jeeps and tanks off the trails, now they are covered in wildflowers. The paths to the numerous waterfalls snake down and up the mountain and are thick with subs, trees, grasses and even ancient ruins. The city of Caesaria Phillipi built by Agrippas for his son, Phillip is here, as well as the cave and Greek ruins of the Temple to Pan (see February, 2015 post) and a wonderful and huge water-powered grain mill that is centuries old. The water was rushing from the melting snows above, and trout and perch were numerous.
The two days we spent in the Golan were restful and rejuvenating, and we were oblivious to the storm that has begun to rage around us. There is no way Israel will hand over a precious and strategic resource to an unstable regime. Years ago, Israeli-owned Gaza was given to a terrorist regime in hopes of peace and appeasement. Israel has seen nothing but rocket launches and underground tunnels and threats of war since. Why would the Golan be given away by an international ruling?