“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?