Michael Totten

Above the Killing Fields of the Galilee

Before the Six Day War in June of 1967, the Syrian army built fortified bunkers on the ridge of the Golan Heights and fired sniper rifles, mortars, and artillery cannons at Israeli civilians below. The cities, farms, and kibbutzim on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and in the wider region around it, were perilous places to live or even to visit when Syria commanded those heights.

“If they saw tractors down there,” Hadar Sela said after leading me to one of the bunkers, “or anything moving at all—even a child walking to the store to get milk—they opened fire. There were bunkers like this along the entire ridge of the Golan.”

Israelis control the ridge now, and they have since they seized it in 1967 during the war against the combined Arab armies of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

“Syria lost it fair and square,” she said.

The bunker she showed me is just a two-minute walk from her house on kibbutz Kfar Haruv, where she and her neighbors enjoy the spectacular formerly Syrian view of the Galilee down below.

Her family is part of a small but committed Israeli movement to settle the Golan Heights, partly in order to strengthen Israeli control for security reasons, but also because building and living on fresh, open, conquered land is an adventure.

Steps descend into a Syrian bunker overlooking the Galilee, Golan Heights

The Sea of Galilee from a Syrian bunker on the Golan Heights

“Nobody came to live on the Golan because it was comfortable or easy,” Hadar said. “I came twenty years later, in 1985. It may sound corny, but in the beginning it was out of a pioneering spirit. It really was, though I know that sounds unfashionable. We remind Israelis of simpler days here.”

Alongside the path to the bunker is a minefield marked off with barbed wire.

“People ask me how I could raise children in a minefield,” she said. “I always say that in Tel Aviv they teach their children not to step into traffic. Here we teach them not to step into minefields.”

Hadar and her significant other Reuven hosted me in their house and lent me their spare room for two nights. Their children have grown and built their own houses, so they had the space. I enjoyed their company as much as I was glad to leave Tel Aviv. The same infernal Eastern Hemisphere heat wave that set Russian forests on fire turned the Mediterranean Sea into a steam bath. The coastal air in Tel Aviv felt like soup on my skin even at five o’clock in the morning. The cooler mountain air of the Golan massaged the heat out of my muscles and back.

Hadar was born and raised in Britain. Reuven is a sabra, born and raised in Israel. “I have nowhere else to go,” he said, addressing his comments not to me so much as to those who think Israelis should go “back” to Poland and Germany. His parents were ethnically-cleansed from Libya and can never return.

The Golan Heights doesn’t feel like Israeli-occupied Syria when you’re there. At least it didn’t to me, not compared with the West Bank and Iraq, anyway.

Though the West Bank is technically disputed territory rather than occupied territory—it hasn’t belonged to anyone according to international law since the British left—parts of it feel like occupied territory, and it’s not exactly wrong to describe them that way. Iraq under American military rule felt occupied in a different way. Hadar and Reuven’s house on kibbutz Kfar Haruv just felt like Israel. There are no Palestinians on the Golan. And the Israelis who settled it come from a completely different part of the Zionist movement than the settlers in the West Bank. They are an entirely separate ideological species.

“I’ve never voted for a party to the right of Meretz,” Hadar said. Meretz, in many ways, is to the left of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party.

Hadar Sela looks into Syria from atop the Golan Heights

Reuven chuckled. “She’s not really that far to the left,” he said.

“Yes, I am,” she insisted.

Aside from her love for the democratic socialism of Israel’s kibbutzim, she didn’t actually sound all that left-wing to me, either. She even sounded to the right of Reuven in some ways.

“Before the first Intifada we didn’t think much of the Palestinians,” Reuven said. “They were just low-wage workers who commuted to Tel Aviv from refugee camps in Gaza or wherever. They didn’t have equal rights, and we didn’t care. It wasn’t until after the first Intifada that we saw them as human beings. We got what we deserved if you ask me.”

Hadar agreed in principle, but she wouldn’t go as far as he did. “I was nearly killed by Palestinians who threw rocks the size of small boulders at my car,” she said. “So don’t tell me the first Intifada was non-violent.”

Syria’s and Egypt’s failure in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, despite their strong performances at the beginning, finally convinced the Arabs that the Jewish state could not be destroyed by conventional means. The Israel Defense Forces had proved itself too hard a target, not just in 1973, but also in 1948 and 1967. And now that Israel was sitting on the Golan, the Syrians had very few soft Israeli targets to shoot at. They couldn’t even see the Galilee region, let alone shoot at it.

Later that same decade, however, Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in Tehran, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamists came out on top in the post-revolutionary struggle for power. When Israel invaded South Lebanon in 1982 to oust Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization from the Lebanese-Israeli border area, Khomeini redeployed 1,500 men from battlefields in the Iran-Iraq war to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to arm, train, and equip his new overseas project—Hezbollah.

Syria’s then-ruler Hafez Assad did everything he could to help the Iranians out. If the Syrians couldn’t fight Israel from their side of the border, Hezbollah could do it for them in and from Lebanon. The front line then shifted from the Golan and the Galilee over to South Lebanon and the Israeli region below it.

Though the Golan physically looms over all this, it wasn’t hit all that hard by Hezbollah during the 2006 war. Israelis on the Golan, though, take a keener interest in Lebanon than Israelis who live farther away and out of Hezbollah’s rocket range—or at least Hezbollah’s rocket range in 2006. According to all the latest intelligence out of Lebanon, today Hezbollah can strike not only as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but all the way down to Eilat on the Red Sea in the far south of the country.

Reuven wanted to know what I thought about Lebanon after I told him I lived there during parts of 2005 and 2006. He was interested not only because he lives a short drive from the border, but also because he served there as a soldier for seven months in 1982.

He spent most of his time in the Chouf mountains among the Christians and Druze.

“Have you been to Jezzine?” he asked me.

I have.

“It is an amazing place,” he said to Hadar, who has never been there. “It’s like somebody lifted a village from Provence and dropped it in Lebanon.”

Jezzine, Lebanon

He fell in love with the country despite all the carnage.

“For the first few months everybody was really nice!” he said. “Everyone seemed to like us.” Then he laughed. I laughed. Hadar laughed.

“I can’t understand that place,” he said. “The Christians and Druze were shooting each other. They weren’t shooting at us, they were shooting each other. Most of the time they seemed to get along perfectly fine, but then Thursday or Monday would come along and they’d fight. Why? Why did they think their lives would get better if they shot at the neighbors?” He seemed genuinely baffled. “It is a crazy country.”

“I don’t care if they like me,” he added later, referring this time not to the Christians or Druze, but to the predominantly Shia south of the country. “I just want them to stop trying to kill me.”


Syria is only two years older than Israel. Like the Jewish state, it was forged upon the ruins of the Turkish Ottoman Empire after interim European powers withdrew from the region.

What is now Israel was still under the control of the British Mandate when Syria declared independence from the French Mandate in 1946. The British had control of the Sea of Galilee and wanted to keep it. So while the Golan Heights—which rises above the sea’s eastern shore—went to Syria, Britain kept control of the actual shoreline. The border was set at ten meters from the edge of the water. If the sea level rose or fell and the shoreline moved, the border moved with it.

So when Israel declared independence from the British Mandate in 1948, it acquired the sea’s eastern shore from Great Britain. Water is a precious resource in the Middle East, and the Syrians were not happy. They were enraged that the Jews achieved independence at all, and—along with the Egyptians, the Iraqis, and the Lebanese—immediately launched an aggressive war to destroy it.

They lost, of course, and Israel went on existing. Israel’s existence was in fact secured. Yet Syria seized control of the eastern shore of the sea by force a year later. That campaign was easy. Israel couldn’t defend an isolated ten-meter wide ribbon of land. Borders like that don’t work between countries at war. So the Syrians gained control of part of the Galilee even though they were not entitled to it, and they held it until Israel snapped up entire area after Syria, Egypt, and Jordan tried yet again to destroy the country in 1967.

An Israel village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee from atop the Golan Heights

The 1990s were supposed to be the decade that heralded peace. The Soviet Union had burst, and it looked like “the end of history,” such as it was, might even reach the Middle East. Yet shortly before the Oslo peace process broke down between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel’s peace talks with Syria hit the rocks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return the Golan in 2000, but Syria’s Assad said no. Most Middle Eastern political analysts assume Assad never wanted a deal, that he merely went through the motions because it suited him at the time. Syria’s secular non-Muslim Alawite-dominated government needs a permanent state of war with Israel to survive in a country with a hostile Sunni majority. Resistance temporarily lends the regime the legitimacy it would otherwise lack. Assad needed an excuse, though, to say no when the Israeli government agreed to return the Golan for peace. And his excuse was that Israel would not give him the eastern shore of the sea.

Hafez Assad (right) during the Yom Kippur War in 1973

Syria’s internationally recognized border never included an inch of that shoreline, but Assad knew Israel would refuse to sign over the title, and he knew his own “street” would applaud him for insisting upon it. Israel can’t give back the Golan unless Syria will say yes. And Syria will not say yes. So the Golan remains in Israel’s hands, and Assad’s son Bashar still has a much-needed grievance to nurse.

The territory has now been in Israel’s hands twice as long as it was in Syria’s.

“The Alawite regime is the best guarantor that Israel will be able to keep the Golan,” Israel Eshed, head of the Golan Tourism Association, told me. He’s one of Hadar’s neighbors in a village up the road, and she took me to his house to meet him.

While the nature of the Alawite regime and its interests may well be the ultimate guarantor of Israeli control of the Golan, it wasn’t always this way. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Syria almost took it back.

“They reconquered more than half the Golan for four days during the war,” Eshed said. “They sent 100 tanks up the Valley of Tears.”

A tank on the Golan Heights left over from the Yom Kippur War

Egypt attacked Israel in the south at the same time, and the Israelis were entirely unprepared for it. Initially, it looked like they might actually lose, and by the end they lost more than 2,500 soldiers.

“What happened to Israeli civilians on the Golan who lived in the areas that were captured?” I asked.

“They were evacuated,” Eshed said, “before the Syrians took them. Otherwise the Jews here would have been massacred. There were Jewish villages on the Golan in ancient times, and again since the 1800s, but the Syrians massacred them in 1948, and they would have done it again in 1973 if they could.”

A menora at an ancient Jewish synagogue on the Golan that's slowly being rebuilt

“That war was deeply traumatizing for us,” Hadar said. “It still feels like a fresh wound here, like your Vietnam.”

War memorials are scattered from one end of the Golan to the other.

An Israeli memorial to fallen soldiers in the Yom Kippur War on the Golan Heights

“There are only two crossing points to the Golan from Syria,” Eshed said, “in the north and in the east. Thanks to the topography, we can easily hold off the Syrians in the southern Golan. And if they can’t take the Golan, they can’t invade Israel.”

The road up the southern Golan. That's Jordan in the background.

A tank trap on the Golan Heights. The boulders would be pushed onto the road in the event of a mechanized Syrian ground invasion.

Even so, he doesn’t believe holding onto the Golan Heights matters as much for Israeli security as it used to.

“Giving up the Golan would be bad for the Zionist movement,” he said. “Israelis love the Golan. We want to keep it.”

Security concerns aren’t entirely idle, however, not when the Golan looms so large over the otherwise vulnerable Galilee.

“We can’t act like Europeans in the Middle East,” Eshed said. “The Arabs don’t understand Yiddish.”

Hadar’s house on kibbutz Kfar Haruv is in the southern and all but impenetrable part of the Golan, and she accompanied me in my rental car on a drive north where we would meet Yehuda Harel, a former member of the Knesset, for lunch.

We passed a number of destroyed Syrian military bases.

“Have you heard of our famous spy Eli Cohen?” she asked me as I stepped out of the car to take pictures.

“Of course,” I said.

The Israelis sent him to Syria in 1962, and he worked his way very high up indeed in Damascus. For a while there he was the chief advisor to the minister of defense before he was found out and executed.

“I’m not sure if it’s true,” she said, “but many say it was his idea to have the Syrians plant eucalyptus trees on their bases when he came to the Golan. They grow fast, and he said they would provide shade for the soldiers during the summer. But what they also did was mark out military targets for the Israeli Air Force. Our pilots could easily see the trees from the skies.”

Destroyed Syrian barracks and eucalyptus trees

The pub where we met Yehuda Harel looked, felt, and operated exactly like a microbrewery in Seattle or Portland. He has lived in Israel during its entire history as a modern nation-state, though he lived in Damascus during World War II when his family temporarily relocated there from the British Mandate for Palestine.

“I was eight years old,” he said, “and I remember it very well. My father was there with the British army, and he brought the whole family with him. It was a small town then. Only around 300,000 people lived there. Now it’s more than a million.”

As a young man he lived in the Galilee region and endured shelling by the Syrians from the Golan for years. After Israel seized the area, he and a handful of others bolted up the mountain to start a kibbutz. The government had nothing to do with their decision, but the Galilee’s kibbutzim gave them their blessings.

“We wanted Israel to annex the Golan,” he said, “for protection.”

The Golan was mostly empty when he and his seven companions arrived. All was blackened from the fires of war. They settled in a destroyed Syrian camp.

“We weren’t at all confident that Israel would keep the Golan,” he said. “It seemed at the time that there was only a small chance it might happen. But in order to shape the future, you have to act.”

After six months, the Israeli government allowed them to build a proper kibbutz. They lived in a Syrian barracks. When the kibbutz population grew larger, they moved amidst the ruins of the shattered garrison town of Quneitra, a city that once housed 20,000 Syrians and which was now half demolished and entirely empty. They lived in an old Syrian officers neighborhood surrounded by walls.

Quneitra, Syria

The Israelis held the city for seven years, but gave it back during the agreed-upon disengagement of hostilities in 1974 when the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) stepped into a narrow demilitarized zone between the two sides.

The Israelis expected Syria to rebuild Quneitra. “As far as I’m aware,” Hadar said, “rebuilding was one of the terms of the agreement under which it was given back.” Israel wanted Damascus to have something to lose in the border area should war break out again. Instead, Assad left it in ruins—and forbade its former residents from ever returning home—as a macabre memorial to “Zionist brutality.” It remains a broken ghost town today and has been in a state of ruin and decay longer than I’ve been alive.

New Quneitra in the background, the old destroyed Quneitra in the foreground from atop the Golan Heights

After the Yom Kippur War, and shortly before the disengagement, Yehuda and his neighbors founded a new kibbutz named Merom Golan next to a volcanic crater 3,000 feet above sea level. They grew apples, grapes, and cherries there, and it’s still thriving and growing.

“Tell me,” I said, “is the Golan Heights still strategically important for Israel?”

“Arab armies have started wars with us again and again since 1948,” he said. “They despise us, but we’re stronger, and we won all of them. Syria doesn’t believe it can win a war against Israel with tanks or a regular army. So it’s buying missiles, big missiles. And if Syria fires them at us, what can we do? We can shoot back at Damascus. A lot of Syrians would be killed, yet they’d win the war against Israel just like Hamas and Hezbollah won their wars against Israel.”

“Why do you think you lost those two wars?” I said. “Because you didn’t win? The way I see it, nobody won.”

“We lost,” he said. “We can beat them in a war face to face, but we can’t beat them from a distance. And they know it. They are much better at missile war than we are.”

“We certainly lost the war of public opinion,” Hadar said.

A cow skull on the Golan Heights

“Sure,” I said, “but that’s better than actually losing.”

“And we didn’t finish the job,” she said.

“We can’t finish the job,” Yehuda said. “How can we finish the job? Hezbollah now has more rockets than ever. Bigger rockets. Stronger rockets. We can’t do anything about it. We can bomb Beirut. So what? It doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t help us at all. And it turns the world against us. Syrian rockets can hit Tel Aviv, and we don’t have much of a deterrent. Rockets don’t have to be very accurate if they’re fired at Tel Aviv.”

Most of Hezbollah’s rockets are pathetically inaccurate, but the Tel Aviv metropolitan area is enormous and hard to miss.

“But we do still have a deterrent,” Yehuda said. “Our tanks can reach Damascus in 48 hours from the Golan Heights. We can destroy the Alawite ruling class. We can drive right through the Valley of Tears down below us. Damascus is only 60 kilometers from the border. My house is closer to Damascus than it is to Haifa. We could drive there in my car in less than an hour.”

The Valley of Tears on the road to Damascus

“At the end of the Yom Kippur War,” Hadar said, “our army was less than thirty kilometers from Damascus.”

“You know what Syria is like,” Yehuda said. “Syria is a country with a strong center. Syria is Damascus just like Israel is Tel Aviv. Everything that matters is in Damascus.”

“Well, what would happen if you did give the Golan back?” I said. “Do you really think the Syrians would shell the Galilee again?”

“No,” Yehuda said. “They would shoot Tel Aviv.”

“They’d shoot Tel Aviv from the Golan Heights?” I said.

“No,” he said. “They’d shoot Tel Aviv from Damascus.”

“But they can do that right now,” I said. “So if you gave the Golan back to Syria, what would you lose? Okay, you’d lose the ability to get tanks into Damascus in 48 hours, but you could still get tanks into Damascus. It would just take you a bit longer. And it wouldn’t be dangerous for you if they were here, would it?”

“Yes,” Hadar said. “It would. We can’t afford to have missiles here.”

Looking up at the Golan Heights from below

“But they can already hit Tel Aviv without putting missiles on the Golan,” I said.

“But they won’t without the Golan,” she said. “We know they can, and they know they can. The question is, what price are they prepared to pay?”

“They are prepared to pay with the lives of thousands of people,” Yehuda said, “but they are not willing to pay with Damascus or the regime.”

I got the sense that Yehuda Harel wasn’t primarily concerned with security, however. He’s been living on the Golan for more than forty years, and his love for it is obvious. Like Israel Eshed, the head of Golan Tourism Association, he wants to keep it because it’s his home.

“The people of Israel love the Golan,” he said. “More than a million Israelis visit here every year. They won’t give it up. And Israel is a democracy. What the government wants, more than anything, is to continue being the government. What the prime minister wants most is to be the prime minister. Any prime minister who talks about giving up the Golan Heights will be afraid of the next election. So before giving up the Golan, somebody will have to convince the people of Israel.”

“What do Israelis love about it?” I said. I can testify that it’s a nice place. It reminds me in some ways of the semi-desert regions of my home state of Oregon. But not many Israelis actually live there.

The ridge of the Golan Heights over the Sea of Galilee

“I’ve asked many people this question,” Yehuda said. “Israelis love the Golan more than they love Jerusalem.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.

“Yes,” Yehuda said. “It’s hard to believe. But when people are asked if they will give up the Golan or part of Jerusalem for peace, the negative answer for the Golan Heights is twice as high as the negative answer for Jerusalem.”

“Why?” I said. “The Jewish people yearned to return to Jerusalem for 2,000 years. It’s your cultural, historical, and political capital.”

“I’ve asked a number of people about this, some of them psychologists,” he said. “And I’ve heard many answers. One is that the Golan is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Mankind knew that water gives life even before it was mankind. The Golan Heights, subconsciously, is water.”

A sunset over the Sea of Galilee from the Golan Heights

The freshwater Galilee is Israel’s primary source of drinking water, and when Syria controlled the Golan, the Syrians did their damndest to take the water for themselves and dry up the sea. The lower portion of the Golan is still scarred by botched Syrian engineering projects that would have diverted or stopped the rivers that pour into the sea in the winter and spring.

Yehuda was a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, from 1995 to 1999. He and a handful of others started their own party solely to prevent the government from giving the Golan back to Syria.

“This was during the time of Yitzhak Rabin’s government,” he said. “I was one of his aides. And I made a party called The Third Way. We were a movement of people on the political left who were against withdrawing from the Golan. So many people joined that we decided to run in elections. We got four seats in the Knesset. So I found myself in the Knesset, and I didn’t know what to do.”

“You were the dog that caught the car,” I said.

He laughed.

“Well,” I said. “How did it go?”

“It was very interesting for a few years,” he said. “My smallest daughter—well, my youngest daughter, she’s not small anymore—was very much against my going into politics. But our movement gets stronger with every new government. Israelis don’t realize how strong our democracy is. They think the government can do anything, but it can’t. I know because I’ve seen it from the inside. The government wants to continue being the government more than anything else. People in the government are afraid of elections, as they should be. They are not good people. They are extremely selfish.”

“You know these people personally,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “And in order to keep their jobs, they have to satisfy people. That’s the system. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system except for all the others. We don’t have to create propaganda for the Golan Heights. We just have to produce the best wine and make sure tourists come here, and the people will stand with us.”

A tourist looks into Syria from atop the Golan Heights

Hadar and Reuven stayed on kibbutz Kfar Haruv during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. A few missiles hit the Golan. I know because I saw them strike the Golan with my own eyes when Noah Pollak and I covered the war from the border area. Hezbollah wasted few of their precious Iranian projectiles on the Golan, however, because it’s so sparsely populated. The cities of northern Israel took the brunt of the damage. So the Golan offered an almost safe front-row seat during the war.

An air raid shelter on kibbutz Kfar Haruv, Golan Heights

It was even safer during the Second Intifada than it was during the Hezbollah war. Suicide-bombers didn’t want to go all the way up there to explode themselves in such a lightly-populated and target-poor environment.

“We had so much tourism up here during the Second Intifada,” Hadar said. “It was the safest place in Israel.”

“It was the only safe place in Israel,” Yehuda said.

“This is a marvelous place to bring up your children,” Hadar said. “My kids grew up completely free here. They didn’t have to worry about anything dangerous.”

“A four year old girl can walk at night to her friend’s house,” Yehuda said.

A road on the Golan Heights leads to an Israeli listening post at the top which monitors communications in Syria

“Nobody is going to attack children here,” Hadar said. “Nothing bad is going to happen. My own children know Britain well, having visited family there often and spent time there themselves after their army service. Recently they said, ‘Mother, thank you, thank you for bringing us up on the Golan and not anywhere else.’ When they saw what life in the UK is like, they knew they had the best childhood possible.”

“And remember,” Yehuda said, “there are no Palestinians here. More than half the people in Israel want to withdraw from the West Bank. Five years ago Israelis wanted to withdraw to give the Palestinians a state so we’ll have peace. Israelis don’t want to occupy people. We are against occupation. Today nobody believes a withdrawal will bring peace, but we are still against occupying another people. But there’s no occupation here like the one in the West Bank. There is no occupation of people.”

That’s sort of true, but not entirely true. It depends on how you look at it.

There are no Palestinians on the Golan, but there are around 20,000 Druze in the north. Unlike the Alawites who lived on the Golan before the 1967 war, the Druze didn’t flee when Israel took it. Most live in the village of Majdal Shams on the back side of Mount Hermon. Unlike the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, the Druze of the Golan can take Israeli citizenship if they want it. They have the same political rights as Israeli Druze, and the same political rights as Israeli Jews.

The Druze, like the Alawites, are not Muslims. Both religions grew out of Islam—as Islam emerged in its own way from Christianity and Judaism—but then became something else.

As there are only around 800,000 Druze in the entire Middle East, they take an extremely cautious approach to politics. Everywhere they live—in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and on the Golan—they’re loyal to whomever’s in charge. Syrian Druze, then, are with Assad and the Baath Party. Israeli Druze side with the Zionists. Lebanese Druze adjust their alliances constantly in an ever-mutating environment. The Druze of the Golan have little choice but to divide their loyalty between Jerusalem and Damascus. Most won’t take Israeli citizenship even though it’s available, and they won’t serve in the army. They self-identify as Syrians, not Israelis. But unlike most Syrians, they say they like Israel. They obey Israeli law, and they don’t sign on with the reactionary Arab movements that yearn for the country’s destruction.

“Let me tell you something that’s not very nice,” Yehuda said. “There were almost 100,000 Syrians here on the Golan Heights before 1967. And they’re not here now. Israel won’t let them come back. They live in refugee camps near Damascus.”

A mosque on the Golan Heights damaged during the 1967 war

“Where did they live?” I said. “Is there an empty city up here somewhere? I know about Quneitra, but it was given back to the Syrians.”

“They refuse to rebuild it,” he said. “20,000 people used to live there. The rest lived in small settlements. So while the West Bank is like South Africa in some ways, the Golan Heights is like America. America and South Africa have bad histories, but today there is complete equality. It’s the same on the Golan Heights. No one under the age of forty even remembers the Syrians being here. You didn’t know there were 100 small Syrian settlements here until I told you about them.”

“So what’s the future of this place?” I said.

“I don’t know anything about the future,” he said. “Nobody does. Not even the CIA knows anything. They didn’t know the Soviet Union was going to collapse a week in advance. So how can I know? I can do my best to keep the Golan Heights in Israel, and that’s it. When people want to know about the future, I send them to a woman named Eva in Jaffa. You can take coffee with her, and then she’ll tell you your future.” He laughed. “She’s much cheaper than the CIA, and no worse. She costs 50 shekels.”

“Okay,” I said, “so let me ask you this. What if there was an offer on the table from the Syrian government—not this government, a different, moderate, and less hostile government, run by a guy like Anwar Sadat—who says, ‘Okay, we’re going to have real peace and normal relations. No more support for Hamas or Hezbollah. You give us back the Golan, and we’ll be as good a neighbor for you as Jordan.’ Would you take the deal?”

“Let me tell you,” Yehuda said. “What a Syrian leader says doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing to me. I would tell him that if Syria is to be governed as a normal country, like Sweden or Canada, then the Syrian government shouldn’t mind if I stay on the Golan. Right? I could stay in Canada if I wanted. If they don’t want me to stay, then they aren’t offering a real peace.”

Tourists look into Syria from the Golan Heights

“But what about Jordan?” I said. “You can’t live in Jordan. Jews can’t even own property there. But the Jordanian government isn’t causing any problems for Israel. The Jordanians aren’t shooting at you anymore, and they cooperate in a serious way on security.”

“At the moment, yes,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen later. No one knew Yugoslavia would destroy itself. It was one state. It was quiet. People were friends. Then it exploded. Here, we are surrounded by Sunnis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Not in Lebanon, but everywhere else. And they are very dangerous. In the Middle Ages, Islam had the most advanced culture in the entire world. Then something happened. We aren’t confident the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan will last. We all saw what happened in Iran in 1979. And look what’s happening now in Turkey. What will Turkey look like next year? Maybe it will look like Ataturk’s country again, and maybe it will look like Iran. Nobody knows.”

“What will happen in Egypt when Mubarak dies?” Hadar said.

“This is why I don’t know what will happen in the future,” Yehuda said. “And I don’t trust people who say that they do. It’s a bad idea to deal with an uncertainty by creating a certainty. If we give back the Golan, we will have no idea what might happen next.”


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