Israel Middle East 2011/12

Visiting Disputed Territories: Israel’s Golan Heights

“Everything you see from here used to be Syria,” we were told. High atop a hill, we stood, surrounded by signs of war. Land mines. Barbed wire. Bunkers. A memorial pierced the sky, cutting upwards like a knife. A cool wind chilled our bones.

Gadot Lookout
The Gadot Lookout

Israel may be warm and desert-like, but neither of those things were true here, at this former Syrian military outpost in the Golan Heights. Instead, green was everywhere! This parcel of land that oddly juts out of Israel’s rather rigid form was not part of its original territory, having been captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.

“It gives us a strategic advantage of having height,” noted our armed security guard, a staple of every Taglit-Birthright trip, offering justification for why this territory was so important to Israel. I guess he would have known, having just finished his compulsory military service.

Road to Mount Meron
View from Mount Meron

A Violent Past

It’s hard to ignore a few simple facts when visiting the Middle East. Like how Israel is still technically at war with both Syria and Lebanon. Hence there are no open border crossings between Israel and those countries and any evidence that you have visited Israel will keep you out of those countries, as well as several others in the Muslim world. Standing there at the Gadot Lookout on that day drove this point home.

Yes, they’ve signed cease-fires, but it’s also hard to ignore the heavy Israeli military installations that line those heavily armored borders. There they sit with soldiers at the ready for anything…atop Mount Meron overlooking Syria and by Rosh Hanikra, sitting atop a road that might lead the way to Beirut. But good luck trying to go that way, because it’s just not possible.

Rosh Hanikra Border
The Lebanese Border at Rosh Hanikra

Of course the world is made up of parcels of land that once belonged to other states. It’s the nature of war. Land is bought and sold. Land is fought over. Land is traded. And we just don’t think much about it in our everyday lives. Remember how Texas was once part of what is now Mexico? Do we even care anymore?

Maybe it’s that the Arab-Israeli conflict plays out regularly on our televisions? Maybe it’s that these conflicts happened in the recent past? Whatever it is, I know it’s hard to ignore these facts.

Yes! The Golan Heights is stunningly beautiful! Yes! There are some incredible sites there, like Banias Nature Reserve, home to the Temple of Pan, an ancient Christian site. Yes! The rolling hills are vibrantly green. And yes! This lush environment is home to wonderful wineries. But the whole time I was there, I couldn’t help but think in the back of my head about this other history of the place.

Sanctuary of Pan
Temple of Pan

Israel is surrounded by enemies.” It’s a phrase that is often tossed around but can sometimes get lost in the din over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which tends to snag most of the international headlines. It could even be easy to forget that if you’re just traveling around the touristy places in Israel.

But standing on that hill that day, overlooking the Golan, it was impossible to forget.

Sound Off!

Have you visited disputed areas of the world before? What about the Golan Heights? Do conflicts tend to remain in your mind when you travel?



By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

18 replies on “Visiting Disputed Territories: Israel’s Golan Heights”

I remember when I went to the Golan Heights in 1995 while on a pilgrimage tour of the Holy Land. A couple of fighter jets flew over while we were being shown around. I remember seeing “Caution: Mines” signs in 3 different languages. I remember seeing Lebanon and knowing it wasn’t an open border.

The history of Israel is so fresh and the wounds are still deep…I don’t pretend to understand even a small bit of the intricate politics there, but I enjoy learning and talking to different people who share different perspectives on the situation there. My last trip in 2010 was as a solo female traveler and it was a much different experience. I look forward to a return in 2014.

Interesting hearing your thoughts Heather. It’s a very strange sensation to be in a place like this and as soon as our guide mentioned that it all used to be Syria, reality hit me. Being in the Golan was the first taste of anything remotely political that we experienced on our trip, which is perhaps why it resonated so strongly with me.

And I too found it fascinating to talk to different people there and get their perspectives on the various thorny political situations that exist in the region. It strikes me as terribly unfair to visit the region and not consider these things.

Really interesting. Most of my travels don’t often deal with political areas- we once were going to go to Thailand during the red shirt protest and we decided to steer clear and changed our route. I like how you learned different perspectives and challenged the way you thought about it.

Thanks Jade. I was also in Thailand during the Red Shirt protests and, despite attempts to steer clear, found that they came to me! But getting a close understanding of the world around you, including the political side of the world, is one of the great things about traveling, isn’t it? It’s what helps make it some of the best education one can get!

Very interesting post, Aaron–and well-done, too! I was in Syria, as you know, and found it interesting to be on the “other side” of the border. It’s intense thinking about the history of these countries and the fact that they’re still technically at war. I almost visited “Quneitra,” which had been the Syrian capital of the Golan Heights. There’s a DMZ/no man’s land there, but a populated area, too, with the destroyed buildings still there. To take the trip, you need a permit. Anyway, I didn’t go and instead went to the museum dedicated to Quneitra in Damascus. Interesting/intense place, btw…

Interesting about Quneitra. It’s on the Syrian side? Or is it technically in the DMZ? Thanks for sharing your experiences!

I’m finally getting around to catching up with your blog. You traveled to so many places that I find fascinating. I knew that many Muslim countries are in some way in conflict with Israel and that you can’t get into places like Syria or Lebanon if you have an Israel stamp in your passport, but I had no idea there was this chunk of territory that is part of Israel but was part of Syria.

Yep, the Golan was part of Syria till 1967. Much like the West Bank was part of Jordan till 1967 (and something called Palestine before that when the British were in the region). The name actually derives from it being on the west bank of the Jordan River. Israel occupied Egypt’s Sinai peninsula for years too after the 1967 war, though it was returned when they signed the peace treaty with Egypt. Hence why you don’t need a visa to just go to Sinai but you need one to go to the rest of Egypt. The history of territory isn’t something we give much thought too but it’s kind of fascinating!

This area is very beautiful. However, I can’t even imagine the conflict and tension here. I am not sure I could handle every life in this area. I guess people get used to it but it isn’t easy. I can’t believe that you can’t travel to other countries if you’ve been to Israel. How do you get around that as a traveler?

What actually inspired this post was a quote that I heard as justification for taking this land… “It was ours before it was theirs,” which I found to be a bit trobuling. But if you follow the news, there are many Israelis who live in disputed settlements in the West Bank, for example, or in striking distance from Gaza as we saw a couple weeks ago. It’s just a way of life.

As for the Israeli stamp, it will keep you out of many Muslim countries (including Iraq, but not it’s Kurdish north, which manages their own immigration), with the exception of those that have signed peace treaties with Israel (Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, UAE, etc). The way around it is that you can ask when you arrive in Israel that they stamp a piece of paper instead of your passport. Not all officers will do this, but if you’re lucky then there’s no record you were in Israel. It gets REALLY complicated though if you do overland crossings, because you also can’t have evidence from a neighboring country that you entered on a border crossing with Israel, which is why I ended up doing the stamps anyways. Flying is the easiest way to avoid these and if you use the King Hussein/Allenby crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, Jordan won’t stamp (but they will on the other crossings).

The State Department will also issue you a second passport if you’ve had an Israeli stamp and think it could be problematic. I’ve heard tales though of Syria and Lebanon still refusing you entry as the new passport states that its a secondary passport!

If you’ve got stamps from Muslim countries, Israel will probably give you a hard time but eventually let you in (my friend with the Iraqi passport stamp who I eventually ended up visiting in Kurdistan said he spent 9 hours trying to cross from Jordan to Israel via that King Hussein/Allenby crossing and, after having been to Egypt, I went through intense scrutiny trying to fly out of Tel Aviv). So if you’re doing a Middle East itinerary, it’s simplest to just visit Israel last.

Or you could get a second passport in advance of going to Israel and just use that for Israel only and reserve your main passport for everywhere else. This can be tricky though as you still need to avoid any evidence of having been to or come from Israel.

As for the Muslim countries that will bar you, it’s an ever-changing list, based around which countries have relations with Israel. My passport expires in 2 years so I figured it wasn’t worth the headache of trying to avoid the stamp. And Syria, as beautiful as I’ve heard it is, isn’t a country you probably want to visit right now anyways…

Good to know. I am sure it wasn’t always like this but as you say things constantly change in the Middle East.

Having gone to Auschwitz and Dachau, this experience seems similar – a somber, real world reminder of the casualties of war.

Well, if you think about it, the whole world is kind of like this. The land that’s now the U.S. used to belong to the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, and before all of them, the Native Americans! It’s more that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays out regularly on our TVs that something like this was in my concious so much.

I can’t fathom what it must be like to go to Aushchwitz, but visitng Halabja, the site of the chemical weapon attack in Iraq, gave me some idea.

I had contrasting feelings when I visited the Golan and camped there.
I saw the “mines” signs everywhere, the old Syrian villages that were completely destroyed… and young Israelis sunbathing, bathing in water springs and having fun in between all this. I know they were born after the war and have nothing to do with it, but nevertheless it was awkward, I couldn’t feel happy even if the scenery was beautiful.
Anyway I think it’s worth visiting, it’s always good to learn, open our eyes and think while we travel.

The “mines” signs are tough. I saw them on the border crossing between Israel and Jordan too, a stark reminder of the fragile situation on the ground. And I totally agree. Traveling isn’t just about hitting up big tourist sites. It’s also about forming an informed opinion about the world and what you see. And even though we were only in the Golan for about half a day, I felt very strange about being being there.

We were in Rosh Hanikra in mid-October. An Israeli soldier was just killed there last week.

I’m an avid photographer but, unlike you or whomever provided the photo, I did not take a picture of the gate to the military compound, as advised by the sign on the fence.

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