Volume 76, Number 10 | July 26 - August 1, 2006

Notebook

The day of living dangerously in the Golan Heights

By Ed Gold

The recent shower of rockets falling on the ancient town of Safed in northern Israel brought back memories of my last visit there, in a generally more optimistic time, but one that led to a frightening incident on the Golan Heights, which lie just to the east of the town.

Four of us were touring northern Israel in 1968, a year after the Six Day War, which shattered the Arab armies that had notified the Jewish state that it was about to be wiped out.

Safed was a picturesque town where Jewish and Arab families had lived side by side for generations, in comparative peace, if not in friendship.

But even then, with the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies beaten, there were the historical reminders of strife going back to the Israeli struggle for independence in 1948.

Throughout the town, buildings were pockmarked with holes or shattered walls, recalling the battle for the town between Israelis and Palestinians once the Israelis laid claim to nationhood.

But the reminders of earlier battles were even clearer as we looked up the Golan Heights. For years before 1948, the Syrians had been lobbing shells into Jewish towns, and their gun emplacements remained intact, so no one would forget what had happened before and what could happen again.

Even in 1968, it was difficult to imagine how the Israelis had gotten up that hill 20 years earlier, reminiscent of what American troops had to do after they landed in Normandy in the showdown with the Nazi army.

Fighting on three fronts, the Israelis somehow drove the Syrians off the hill, and in 1967, as the Syrians attacked again, drove them further back toward Damascus.

Norman was our driver, actually the only driver among the four of us, which included our wives. Although the Golan looked foreboding, it was a historically heroic site, so Norman decided we should go and take a look.

It passed through my mind that we could be venturing into dangerous territory. We had seen Arab hostility only a few days earlier as a guide, a former war hero, drove us into Gaza, a locale I really didn’t want to see. As we passed refugee camps, Arab children threw rocks at the car. Our driver yelled at them in Arabic and they ran away.

Now, as we climbed the Golan, I wondered how close the Syrians might be. We drove to the top of the hill and found a road in poor condition, with no signage and no people.

Norman kept on driving, as we all became more apprehensive, along a broken road with no signs of life and no indication of who was in charge.

Several times I suggested we had seen enough and should turn around and get a closer look at the Syrian gun emplacements on the hill. Syria’s rulers were not known for being the most enlightened bunch. (Fourteen years later, the Syrian president, Assad, would get rid of an opposing town by burying its population.) But Norman was enjoying the adventure and drove on.

We must have been driving in “no man’s land” for what seemed like a half an hour when we heard some noise just ahead.

We went around a bend in the road and spotted a fence to the left. As we drove along the fence we saw a gate opening onto a yard.

We looked into the yard and panic set in. Standing in a row, facing the car, were about 15 Arabs and they were all pointing rifles at the car.

No one said a word. Norman hit the brake, made a U-turn and hit the gas. He didn’t stop the car until we had reached the bottom of the Golan Heights.

An Israeli soldier was standing there and we pulled up next to him and rattled off our nightmare story about the Arabs and their guns. He began to laugh.

“Those are Druse troops,” he said. “They are part of the Israeli army. They handle security in many of our mountainous areas. We have several Druse outposts on the Golan.”

Norman’s shirt was soaken wet and he was dripping from perspiration. I suggested we had done enough sightseeing for one day. Everyone agreed and we headed back to our hotel in Jerusalem.

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