Israel: Exploring the Golan Heights

Golan Heights

Borders: Exploring the Golan Heights Reveals Israel and Her Neighbors

By Sabina Lohr

A look across into Jordan - photos by Sabrina Lohr
A look across into Jordan – photos by Sabina Lohr

Jogging along the road encircling the Sea of Galilee, I relished the sun, the crisp spring air, and the only exercise I’d get all day. I spent the rest of the day sitting in a car for another step in my journey through Israel – the Golan Heights.

The Battle Plan

My guide Avi had come to my kibbutz hotel in Ma’agan the night before, to meet me and find out what all I wanted to see in the Golan.

I’d shown him my quickly scribbled list of desired sights. “Along with everything else I’ve written here,” I told him, “I want to see all the Golan’s borders. Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.”

“Jordan and Syria, no problem. Lebanon – maybe.”

“What’s the problem with Lebanon?” I asked. Perhaps Avi was hesitant for safety reasons. Imad Mughaniya, one of the Lebanese leaders of Hezbollah, had been killed in a car bombing several days before. Although Israel denied involvement, Hezbollah was pointing the finger at them and promising retaliation.

“Lebanon is too far away,” Avi stated simply.

“Too far? That’s all?” Ha – I knew we’d be driving to Lebanon.

Jordan as seen from the Golan Heights
Jordan as seen from the Golan Heights

Five minutes to Jordan

We leave Ma’agan first thing in the morning and head for the border of Jordan. In five minutes, we’re there.

“Want a picture?” Avi asks. “Sure,” I say, readying my camera to aim at the lush green rolling hills that lay beyond the fence separating Jordan from Israel. “Okay,” he says, “Come, come.”

Avi is out of the car, and I follow him. I see we’re headed toward a jeep occupied by five IDF soldiers [Israeli Defense Forces].

“Now, give me your camera.” I look at the soldiers. On duty, at a border with – peace treaty notwithstanding – an enemy country, they look unhappy with our arrival. They exchange Hebrew with Avi and look at me. Their faces remain unmoved.

With IDF soldiers at the Jordan border
With IDF soldiers at the Jordan border

“Okay, go stand with them. I’m going to take your picture.” I do not want my picture taken with these men in olive drab, wielding M-16s.

Dressed in Tourist Garb

Today, of all days, I am dressed in traditional American tourist garb – replete with jeans and a colorful T-shirt. This will look ridiculous, I think. At least I am wearing sandals – typical Israeli footwear.

Obviously, the soldiers are doing this for their fellow countryman, who is also their fellow soldier. Military duty is mandatory for most Israeli men and women upon hitting age 18, and they must serve in the reserves until their forties.

“Shalom,” I say as I approach. One or two of them mutter something in Hebrew. Clearly, they are straining to tolerate me. Avi snaps a quick photo. When I grab the camera back from him I see that, as I suspected, my photo-mates are utterly unsmiling.

Windmills on the Syrian border
Windmills on the Syrian border

Then we’re off. For about one minute. Avi brakes the car. “Take a picture of that,” he demands.

“What?” I ask.

“You see those numbers on the fence?” There are two sets of numbers on small metal placards. “If someone, something, anything, even an animal touches the fence, a signal is sent to the army. The numbers let them tell the nearest border unit exactly where to go to see if anyone has come across the fence.”

I snap a photo.

“Get a closer picture,” he says. “This is important.” “Okay,” I say, opening up the car door so I can stand one inch from the fence if it will make him happy. “Stop!” he yells. “Don’t get out of the car!”

Seismic activity makes its mark on an old Syrian fortification
Seismic activity makes its mark on an old Syrian fortification

“Oh. My. Gosh. Why?” I ask.

“You see that dirt path going along the fence? If any footprints are spotted in the dirt, the army has to come out and conduct a search, because someone could have jumped the fence.”

So I’m allowed a photo session with IDF border guards, but I’m not allowed to step in the dirt. This is starting off as a backward journey.

On To the Golan!

We continue north along the border with Jordan, through green fields and hills. “It’s good you’re here at this time of year,” Avi says. “In the summer, all of this turns yellow.”

We’re now out of the Galilee area and in the Golan Heights. Avi pulls off the road to an area cordoned off with barbed wire. “Danger – Mines!” says a sign. I’d read that live mines are still lying around in the Golan. Those unfamiliar with the area are cautioned not to wander off main roads, lest they get a leg blown off.

An old Syrian fortification with purely Israeli sentiments
An old Syrian fortification with purely Israeli sentiments

A few meters away from the barbed wire and safe with my guide who knows what he’s doing, we climb onto a large concrete block lying beside the sign. As far to the west as I can see is the stunning Jordan scenery.

We’re not traveling long before Avi pulls off the road again, now at a concrete fortification pocked with bullet holes. Avi explains to me that this was used by Syria during warfare with Israel.

Now it is used by Israel to monitor the movement of the earth to predict the future possibility of earthquakes. Avi points out a crack a few centimeters wide and running down the length of one of the walls. Numbers are written alongside it. “See? The earth is moving.”

Meanwhile, I notice that people are making their own marks inside the walls of this structure. Graffiti is everywhere. “I love Israel” on one wall catches my eye. I’m loving it too.

A Druze wedding tradition
A Druze wedding tradition

The weather has turned colder, as we are at a higher elevation now. In the distance stands Mount Hermon, covered in white. People ski on this mountain, although I’ve read it’s pretty mild fare if you’re a skier. I pull a sweater out of the back of the car and on we drive.

Movie Moments

About a week before I’d left for Israel my boyfriend and I had watched “Syrian Bride,” an Israeli movie about a Druze girl in Israel whose father arranges a marriage for her with a Syrian television star. She must cross the border from Israel into Syria, where she will marry him.

The bride ends up getting trapped in the no-man’s land between the two countries when her passport is stamped with an Israeli visa, which Syria will not recognize because they, like most Arab countries, won’t recognize that Israel exists.

A Druze woman in Majdal Shams makes lafa.
A Druze woman in Majdal Shams makes lafa.

Great movie and great scenery of red and white windmills on a hill in Syria, just beyond the fence that separates it from Israel. I get to see them now as we drive by. Such a satisfying border moment.

I am thrilled when we ourselves happen upon a Druze wedding. A shiny black car is parked in the road, blocking it entirely. It has a large video camera mounted on the hood and a white cloth ribbon attached to the driver’s door.

“They always do this,” Avi shouts. This is a Druze wedding. They park their car in the road and take pictures. I don’t know why.”

He waits for just a moment. It is clear the car is not budging. Avi pulls around the front of it to get to the other side. Through their windshield, I see the Druze bride and her groom.

On we drive, through the countryside, passing through Druze villages. The Druze number between half a million to a million worldwide, mostly residing in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, with a small percentage in the Golan.

The Druze village of Majdal Shams
The Druze village of Majdal Shams

As the Golan was once part of Syria and may one day be returned to Syria, almost all of these Druze are legal residents of Syria rather than Israel.

We wind through the streets of Majdal Shams, the very village where the “Syrian Bride” took place. Avi stops at a large tent. At the entrance, a Druze woman is tossing round, flat dough in the air.

The dough is called lafa, and she cooks it over a dome-shaped oven called a taboon. Once it’s done, she spreads on it finely ground meat, spiced to perfection, rolls it up and hands to me. Around the inside of the tent are overstuffed sofas and chairs, and we sit. I eat enough of the stuffed lafa to know that this is one of the most delicious dishes I have had in my life.

I think Avi is hoping for a break from driving. I am not. I wrap up the rest of it to take with me. “That was great. Let’s go.”

Avi makes sure I get to see the border with Lebanon.
Avi makes sure I get to see the border with Lebanon.

At Last – Lebanon

I see another fence to my right. Could it be? “This is Lebanon,” Avi confirms. We have indeed come a long distance to see what other people might think is just another border. But across it lies a country where I might never go. I love getting this look at its southern terrain. And I would like for it to be a long look.

But Avi pulls up to a lone border guard. They exchange words.

“What did he say?” I ask as we pull away.

“He said we’d better leave if we want to be safe.” I somehow doubt it. Avi had done most of the talking, and the soldier’s demeanor didn’t tell me he was relaying an important message to Avi.

Whether he told us to scram or not, we pull away from that area. Still, we continue our drive along the border for quite a long while.

Metulah, Israel sits right on the border with Lebanon.
Metulah, Israel sits right on the border with Lebanon.

We enter Metulah, the northernmost town in Israel. Its position directly on the border with Lebanon makes life here unsettling.

For years Katyusha rockets from Lebanon pummeled the town when the Lebanese felt the occasion arose. That is, until Iran and Syria began supplying Lebanon with longer-ranging missiles.

Now these rockets often bypass Metulah. This doesn’t let residents completely off the hook, though. During the 33-day-long Second Lebanon War in 2006, almost everyone fled.

We drive to the top of a lookout point overlooking Metulah. Soon, an army Hummer crests the hill and makes its way toward where we are standing.

“We’re in trouble,” I said.

“No,” Avi replies. “We’re not interesting to them. They’re probably just taking a break.” Five or so soldiers pile out of the vehicle. Avi tells me that he knows there will be another Hummer coming along shortly, as they are forbidden to travel alone for their own safety reasons.

Sure enough, along comes another Hummer. Now it’s us and a dozen soldiers at the lookout. As Avi had predicted, we do not seem to be of any interest to them.

Golan HeightsI see this as an interesting moment – hanging with the IDF on the border between Israel and Lebanon. Avi sees this as another photo opportunity.

I disagree, more vehemently this time than I did at the Jordan border in the morning, as I feel I know this guy better than I did at the beginning of the day.

Still, Avi gets the camera from me. He walks over to speak with his comrades. He is trying, I am sure, to persuade all of them to get in the photo. He has to settle for just one.

The other soldiers stand off to the side, well out of the shot. They, like their Jordan border counterparts, are wholly unamused. The remaining soldier suffers me quite well. He puts his arm around me and smiles big.

My time in the Golan drawing to a close; Avi and I get back in his car for the descent down from Metulah and from the Golan Heights. The borders are behind me geographically but are emerging in the foreground of my plans for another trip.

sabina lohr

Sabina Lohr is a travel writer who is always planning her next trip.

How to Visit the Golan Heights

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