In the Golan Heights: Stray Bullets And Spring Cleaning

Apr 24, 2013
Originally published on April 28, 2013 7:52 am

Spring in the Golan Heights is beautiful. The hills are light yellow-green. The scrawny arms of young cherry trees are covered with small blossoms almost all the way back to their thin trunks.

Apples, from last season, are ridiculously cheap and starting to soften, but if you put your nose close to a bagful and inhale you'll breathe their fragrance. The views are uncluttered by desert dust.

I went to the Golan to see the view of Syria from Israeli-occupied territory. This seems to be a popular pastime. During the hour or so I was at the top of Mount Bental, hundreds of tourists, including school groups and Israeli soldiers in training, climbed around old bunkers and metal cutouts of soldiers in action and snapped photos of the scenery below.

You see farms from here, as well as the 10 windmills Israel set up to explore wind energy. Also visible is the old Circassian-built town of Quinetra, which was captured by the Israeli military in the 1967 Six-Day War, recaptured by Syria briefly in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and is now, still mostly in ruins, in a demilitarized zone.

A new Syrian city with the same name is off in the distance. Low white buildings visible in a different direction house the United Nations force, here since 1974 to observe and enforce the Israel-Syria cease-fire.

Most of the time, there hasn't been much to enforce. An enthusiastic audio recording for tourists at the top of Mount Bental declares this "the quietest border Israel has ever known." Israeli officials describe it the same way.

It's not an internationally recognized border, but an armistice line. Syria insists on getting the Golan Heights back as part of any peace deal with Israel. Israel, in turn, annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, though the move has never been recognized internationally.

Israel Watches Warily

Israel says that since the civil war broke out in Syria about two years ago, artillery fired there has landed in Israel more than 10 times. No one has been hurt. Israel has fired back six times, when the military believed shots were not accidentally going astray but targeting Israeli soldiers. Injured people on the Syrian side have also come to the frontier asking for help, in some cases receiving it.

Israeli military spokesman Col. Peter Lerner says all of Israel's return fire targeted Syrian army units, which the Israelis believed to be the source aiming at them.

But the biggest worry Israelis see as they look at their neighbor in chaos is Islamist extremists among the Syrian rebels.

Kobi Marom, a retired Israeli colonel, says it's "just a question of time" before these fighters turn their sights on Israel. He expects that to happen as soon as Syrian President Bashar Assad falls, if not before.

Israel Builds A New Fence

Marom commanded troops along this line for two years in the 1990s and now lives high in these hills, close to Israel's only ski resort. He takes me to a spot on the armistice line where a new fence Israel started building earlier this year is just steps from the back patio of a home on the Israeli side.

The fence is 30 feet tall and topped with barbed wire. There is an open area next to it on the Israeli side, then a paved road, then another, lower fence.

Two years ago, a group of Palestinian refugees living in Syria came to this spot to protest against Israel. Several hundred broke through an old fence — much lower than this new one.

At least four people were killed when Israeli troops opened fire. The demonstration, coordinated with other Palestinian protests elsewhere, wasn't a spillover of Syria's civil war, and it wasn't viewed here as a direct a flare-up of the long-quiet Syrian-Israeli conflict. Still, Israel saw it as a warning.

"It was like a wake-up call," says Lerner, "saying your border isn't capable to prevent even this type of demonstration of people coming in throwing stones. What will happen if they come with armored personnel carriers?"

That is a big if. But Israel doesn't dismiss risks lightly. In recent months reserve Israeli soldiers in the Golan have been replaced with professional troops, now always on alert.

There is some concern the U.N. troops might pull out because of risks they face. Twenty-one Filipinos serving in the observer force were briefly kidnapped by Syrian rebels last month. And while on the Israeli side life generally goes on as usual, there is a sense of heightened concern that shows up in small ways.

One example is a task local resident Nadav Katz has added to his spring cleaning this year: make sure the bomb shelters on the kibbutz where he lives are clear, clean and ready for anything.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got a view of the Syrian border this week, its southern border, where the civil war has sometimes spilled over into Israel. Hagel was on a helicopter tour with the Israeli defense minister. NPR's Emily Harris recently travelled to Israel's frontier with Syria and sent this report on Israel's assessment of the conflict next door.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The wind whips up fast on Mount Bental, a high spot in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights with sweeping views into Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Shalom, and welcome to the Bental lookout.

HARRIS: An audio recording tells the many tourists who come here about the lush fruit orchards and vineyards in the Golan Heights and about the military history of this region - two wars between Israel and Syria in 1967 and 1973.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Since signing the disengagement agreement in 1974, this border has been the quietest border that Israel has ever known with any of its neighbors.

HARRIS: It's gotten a bit noisier recently because of Syria's civil war.

NADAV KATZ: Beyond the fields, there are Syrian villages.

HARRIS: Local resident, Nadav Katz, points out places in Syria where Israelis have seen fighting between army forces and rebels. He turns and points toward places in Israel where Syria's civil war has spilled over.

KATZ: South of us, there is a village where a number of mortars have fallen. Soldiers in that part have been fired at. To the north of us is Kibbuz El-Rom. In their orchards a number of mortars have fallen.

HARRIS: The Israeli military counts more than 10 times that mortars, rockets or bullets have been fired in Syria and landed in Israeli territory. Israeli troops have fired back six times, when they believed they were targeted or when shells landed in civilian areas. All returned fire has been at the Syrian army.

Colonel Peter Lerner is an Israeli military spokesman. He says Israeli reserve troops in this area have been replaced by professional soldiers. They're always on alert now, because anything could happen.

COLONEL PETER LERNER: Along all of our borders, the biggest question mark is the Syrian border. Everything seems to be breaking down there. On one side, you have the military where there is no or very little chain of command. On the other side, you have numerous different types of armed groups from Al-Qaida to people who are just fighting for their own freedom within their country. It could develop into various different scenarios.

HARRIS: Retired Israeli Colonel Kobi Marom imagines a few scenarios as he looks across a new fence Israel has almost finished building along the entire Syrian-Israeli line. It's 30 feet high and topped with barbed wire. A Syrian military post on the hill across the fence is so close that we can squint and see people moving around inside. There's a United Nations observer post there, too. Syrian rebels kidnapped nearly two dozen U.N. soldiers in this area last month, increasing the Israeli sense of destabilization.

Colonel Marom believes that Islamist extremists among Syrian rebels will become a real threat to Israel.

COLONEL KOBI MAROM: It's just a question of time because the day after Assad is going to fall, they're going to start - in my point of view - attacking Israeli targets. And that's one of the major Israeli concerns that this border that used to be quietest border that we have for the last four decades, will be very unstable and very escalated. Israel must be prepared for that.

HARRIS: Some Israeli analysts suggest a new government in Damascus could eventually be an improvement, if it were less friendly to Iran and Hezbollah than President Assad has been. Eyal Zisser teaches at Tel Aviv University. He says the most important thing for Israel strategically is that chaos is contained.

EYAL ZISSER: I think that Israel is interested in a stable regime, strong enough to force itself upon its population and is committed to the cease fire agreement, hopefully to a peace agreement.


KATZ: This is a bomb shelter.

HARRIS: Back in the Golan Heights, Nadav Katz has been cleaning out the bomb shelter on his kibbutz.


HARRIS: He flips on lights and leads the way underground. In a square concrete room painted white, there is a large water jug and two weaving looms. Even though shelters here are always ready to use, sometimes they are used for a little storage. Katz says given the uncertainty in Syria, he and other kibbutz residents have been double-checking that shelters are clear and everything is up to snuff.

KATZ: It's primarily state of mind of being prepared for various events that might come along. The idea is to defend ourselves as much as we possibly can.

HARRIS: Including, if need be, from Syria.

Emily Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.