Andre Vltchek: Facing Syria From an Israeli Bunker
It is late afternoon and I am standing on top of an active, although temporarily abandoned, Israeli bunker.
Through my Nikon lens I can clearly see a huge Syrian flag waving majestically in the wind. The flag is near, damn near, but why should it not be there – this is all Syria, according to the international law.
Where the flag is waving, it is Syria. Behind the flag, it is Syria; and Syria is where I am standing now, exposed and shivering in the chilly wind coming from the mountains.
It is quite a sight, all around me, quite a sight! Right ahead – destroyed and abandoned – are remains of the houses and buildings of the Syrian town of al- Qunaitra. On the left, the UN, or more precisely, the UNDOF base. There are white trucks and light armored vehicles behind their perimeter; almost like those outside Goma, East Kivu, in DR Congo.
But here, the UN base is sitting on what is called Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. It is right between the ceasefire 1974 UNDOF lines Alfa and Bravo. Through the DMZ runs shiny and new Israeli barbed, high-voltage, stereotypical, and despite its glow – melancholy – wire fence.
Above all that mess, on top of the mountain, hums an enormous Israeli military post, equipped with dozens of radars, listening devices and antennas. It is far, maybe one kilometer away, but the sound it is producing is like that of a giant beehive. It is really obnoxious stuff – like some cartoon on over-militarization; a battleship placed on top of the mountain.
I am photographing trenches of the bunker; the mountaintop turned surveillance fortress, and then some old rusty, as well as those new shiny wires. “Danger! Mines!” It is written, I guess in the spirit of international understanding, in Hebrew, English and Arabic. These signs are all around me. I am trying not to step too far from the main paths, although here and there I stray – the images are too powerful, too tempting.
Israeli human rights lawyer, Ms Lynda Brayer, who drove with me from Haifa, is now sitting put inside the car. She must be thinking that I am at least moderately insane. Despite her concern and objections, I drove this small Nissan to several hills, overlooking Syria; I drove it near the Israeli military installations; road or no road.
But I really can’t get enough – the images are intensely perverse. The whole reality of this occupation – the Israeli occupation of Golan Heights – is mad, surreal, and in its own wicked way – ‘perfect’.
And then it also hits me that I am mad. Just a few days earlier, on January 30, 2013, Israel attacked Syrian territory, damaging a facility outside Damascus, using fighter jets. According to Reuters:
The foreign ministry summoned the head of the U.N. force in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to deliver the protest a day after Israel hit what Syria said was a military research centre and diplomats said was a weapons convoy heading for Lebanon.
“Syria holds Israel and those who protect it in the Security Council fully responsible for the results of this aggression and affirms its right to defend itself, its land and sovereignty,” Syrian television quoted it as saying.
Syrian President Bashar el-Assad declared few days later: “Syria can defend itself from “current threats… and aggression.”
So here I am, totally exposed, wearing my green coat, standing on top of an Israeli bunker, facing Syria through my big photo lens. ‘That is perhaps not very wise’, I was mumbling, running down the hill for cover.
How beautiful are the Golan Heights, how beautiful! How lovely are the green gentle slopes and dramatic stormy clouds, embracing, like a soft comforter, the tops of the hills.
How sad, how scarred, how ravished are Golan Heights! Those mighty stone military barriers, resembling the walls of old Inca castles; that constant flow of Israeli military hardware – those trucks and 4×4’s and tanks – and all around, those anonymous stonewalls that used to encircle local houses and hamlets and towns.
It is all so empty now. I stop the car, kill the engine and listen: I don’t hear any birds, just that constant humming from the surrounding hills.
“In the occupied territory of Golan Heights, the majority of people was expelled; brutally and unceremoniously”, I was told by Joul Jammal, an Israeli lawyer. “This Syrian territory occupied by Israel, is predominantly populated by the Arab Druze people; those brave and proud inhabitants, who have not succumbed to the occupation for decades.” The Druze form an extremely close-knit society and like Bohras they represent one of the branches of Ismailis. Some theories claim that Druze are actually Muslims, some that they are not at all.
Some say that the occupation of Golan Heights is ‘soft’, that Druze people enjoying a high standard of living, much higher than in most of the countries of the region, including Syria itself. The Economist even argued that would Israel return the Golan Heights to Syria, many of its inhabitants would suffer from the Hong Kong syndrome.
These are extremely cynical analyses.
Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, the population of Golan Heights consisted of 145.000 inhabitants, including several thousands of Palestinian refugees. Israelis forced great majority of local people to flee. Only 7.000 remained, and these were concentrated in a handful of villages.
Hundreds of villages and hamlets were demolished and much of the land was given to Jewish settlers.
Even the biggest Syrian city in the region – Al-Quneitra – was occupied in 1967, returned to Syria in 1974, but before that, it was dynamited and bulldozed to the ground.
Now kibbutzim and Israeli settlements scar the landscape. There is not just some agro industry. Merom Golan and Ein Zivan, not far from the border and the UN camp, look like some modern-day fortifications, heavily protected gated communities.
“Organic beef” farm is being advertised on the main road. The sign is idyllic and you turn the wheel and drive up to the hill, just to be welcomed by a closed gate and barbed wire. Ortal Winery is advertised right at the intersection with the road that leads to Ortal Community. You drive in that direction, but soon, instead of some elegant wine cellar you discover a huge and heavy metal gate, with surveillance cameras and an eerie feel to it.
“This is an outpost”, protests Ms Brayer, “not a part of communal infrastructure. It is totally different from what we can see at the West Bank.”
We have to tank. The gas station is automatic, with no attendants in sight. It is fully computerized, and hidden behind the fence. Even for me, this is too technologically advanced.
Soon, the military vehicle stops next to us. “Are you OK?” we are asked.
“Fine”, I say. “Do you know how to operate this?” I point at the pump. The soldier eagerly explains. He asks no questions about the reasons of our presence in this area. He is confident, reserved, but friendly. My window is open and there are three cameras openly resting on the back seat. It would take some discipline not to notice. The soldier notices. But he doesn’t seem to care.
In India, in Pakistan, in Congo – I would be already detained and escorted to the barracks for interrogations. Here, the army is in total control and has no fear. I was certainly observed as I was standing on top of their bunker, photographing. Nobody seems to be bothered.
I ask the soldier about the bunker.
“It’s an abandoned one; at least for now. You are asking about a conflict around here? No, nothing – there is nothing going on. There are no provocations from the Syrian side… No provocations for years.”
“Even as the Israeli jets had been crossing to Syria, just a few days ago?”
“It was absolutely quiet here”, he reconfirms. “As if nothing happened.”
He is a young kid, bespectacled, timid. He is replying to my questions briefly and to the point, as if he would be standing in front of a class. His friend is impatient; he seems to be in a hurry.
“Sorry, I have to run”, soldiers waves at me.
We drive by the monument commemorating something called “679 Brigade”. There is a bellicose artwork, and some history engraved in the stone. There is a decommissioned Israeli tank parked nearby. I need some exercise. I jump and grab the cannon with both hands, and then I hang on it for a while. I do some pull-ups. The whole place, as well as my presence here, are bizarre, Kafkaesque.
A nearby base is overflowing with Israeli vehicles carrying tall antennas. I make a u-turn, return to the entrance and photograph the entire place. All is all in open; there seem to be no secrets.
But back in Haifa, Joul Jammal warned me: “It appears that army does not fear reporters. They want to present all this as ‘enlightened occupation’. You can film and photograph what is ‘in open’. But when they kill and when they destroy houses, they also periodically kill reporters.”
We admire apples at a small stall. There is a brilliant direct view into unoccupied Syria from here. Apples and cherries – that’s what Golan Heights is famous for.
And it is also renowned for the mass expulsion of its population! There is yet another vineyard nearby, right before the terrible barbed-wire fence. I suddenly lose all my love for a good wine, at least for some time.
“It is all quiet here”, smiles the seller. “Only sounds we get here are those of the car engines, as well as humming of the radios and radars on top of the hill over there”.
Further down we discover a tower and a cannon of some old tank, facing the valley and the Syrian city of al-Quneitra. It is buried deep in earth, and now ‘decorated’ with graffiti. Few minutes driving north, and there are gloomy ruins of a former Syrian military outpost. Grass is tall here, and the silence complete.
One more kilometer further, and I am suddenly spotting huge multi-story ruins of a building: a military compound, or maybe an abandoned school?
I park the car and walk around the deep puddles. Then I see them: Israeli soldiers, an entire commando, machineguns ready, climbing the walls, playing some weird war games. They are exercising.
At some point they become aware of me. One soldier walks towards me, slowly.
“Is everything OK?” Here comes the same question, and the same friendly indifference.
“Fine”, I say, pointing at the monstrous decomposed structure. “What was this?”
“An old Syrian base”, he replies.
“Can I?” I point the lens at the commando.
“Sure”, he shrugs the shoulders and goes away.
“Hey”, I scream at him. “How close could I get to the borderline if I walk this way?”
“Puddles are deep,” he smiles. “And you are not wearing boots. Drive further north and you can actually sit on the fence.”
“And burn my ass on thousands of your volts”, I say.
“Precisely”, he laughs.
‘A joke’, I think; ‘a military joke’. “Thanks”, I say.
I return to the car. I drive north.
“Yes, you can go all the way to the border”, says a man, a giant, and a guard, at the entrance to the military road that leads towards the border with Lebanon. He is a Druze, a local. He does not smile; he is not joking. We are at Majdal al-Shams, a divided town with 9 thousand inhabitants, the largest Druze ‘urban area’ in Golan.
“You can go and see the Shouting Hill. That’s where the separated, broken families meet; that’ where they at least can exchange glances, and shout at each other through the barbed wire.”
I ask him about the occupation of Golan Heights. He does not hesitate one single moment:
“I am Syrian”, he says. “I want this place to be returned to Syria!”
I am amazed; a man is not afraid to express his feelings. He is proud and tall and coherent. He even gives me his name, which I prefer not to use.
Unlike Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, people here do not have to beg for work permits to go to Israel. This is ‘annexed, incorporated territory’. Since 1981 the Golan Heights fall under Israeli civil law, are incorporated into the Israeli system of local councils. Locals can go as they please; they can work in Haifa or Tel Aviv. They can apply and get Israeli citizenship, an ID card, even a passport. Less than 10 percent choose this option. They are proud and they are stubborn: their home is Syria. They are waiting to ‘return home’, waiting already for long decades.
“Are there many divided families?” I ask the guard.
“Yes, many. Houses are on both sides and the border is running in between.”
I ask him whether he has some family members on the other side of the fence.
“Yes, in Jaramana, east of Damascus. We all meet in Jordan, once in a while. Jordan is where the families from Syria and occupied Golan Heights can meet.”
The borderline is one kilometer away from the center. It is monstrous, horrendous. Compared to this, old Cold War borders looked like promenades. And even the border between North and South Korea has somehow more ‘civil’ appearance.
This frontier – between Syria and occupied Syria – has now three tall layers of electric fences, equipped, traditionally, with barbed wire. In between is a narrow road for Israeli military vehicles. And only then, only behind all this, there are the UN watchtowers.
Paradoxically, it appears that there is absolutely no fortification on the Syrian side.
Before mobile phones became affordable, people used to come here, to the border, from both sides; they used to line up with bullhorns to make small talk with their relatives. I am told that they still come, occasionally, just to look at each other, through the barbed-wire grid. They come here to see, to recognize the faces of their loved ones.
I wave at cargo vehicle; I stop it, and ask the driver when this ugly stuff was actually constructed.
“It’s new”, he says. “But this is still nothing. Come back in a few months: Israelis are planning to build the real wall – tall and concrete. It will be going up very soon.”
We speak to several people in Majdal al-Shams and other villages and towns of the area.
Druze could be described as open and friendly people. They live in their own universe. They have their own religion and philosophy of life. They believe in reincarnation and they almost never marry out of their clan.
By standards of the region, Golan Heights is very rich area. Health system and education are of similar quality as those in Israel, and so are other social services.
But this is occupied land, from which most of the native people were expelled right after the war. Now Jewish settlements are dotting the plateau.
Israel tried to use uniqueness of Druze culture and religion to its own advantage: convincing natives that they are not part of Syria; that they are a separate nation.
As Mr. Jammal explained: “Israel has been using the divide and rule strategy; it tried to create the notion of superficial Druze state, using the fact that Druze people have their own faith, which is far from the mainstream of Islam.”
But Druze resisted, at least the great majority of them. Return to Syria is their goal, even after several decades of so-called ‘soft’ occupation.
We are told that many people from Golan Heights aim at studying in Syria. Some 200 are now attending universities there, to become doctors, dentists and lawyers. The UN is facilitating their border crossing, their journeys.
Before the recent escalation of hostilities between Israel and Syria, the UN even facilitated sale of apples and cherries from Golan Heights to unoccupied Syria. Now things are on hold, after the ‘excursion’ of Israeli fighter jets and bombing of Syria, the act that breached international law and caused explosion of anger all over the region.
“People here live as if everything is just a temporary arrangement. As if one day there will be no border, anymore”, we are told by many in Majdal al-Shams.
Some wealthy residents are even building their villas right next to the borderline, facing the wall. Because behind the wall are those magnificent mountains. And one day, who knows, there might be, once again, an unobstructed view.
There are collaborators in Golan Heights, some are local and some are ‘imported’. Indeed, there are plenty of collaborators in Golan Heights!
In a small restaurant, Falafel Abu, in the center of Majdal al-Shams, two men are sharing their evening meal. They ask questions; want to know all about us and they don’t even try to conceal their identity, supplying us with their names, email addresses and mobile numbers.
One person is local; a tall man who spent many years in the United States, in Idaho, before returning back to Golan Heights. The other one is a Christian, from Beirut, Lebanon.
“My father emigrated from Lebanon to Toronto, Canada, in 1990, after the war. I lived there for some time, and after I got my Canadian passport, I visited Israel and fell in love with this country. Then I came to Golan Heights and I made good friends among Druze people. I married a Christian girl here, got a residential permit, and stayed.”
“That would not be so simple”, whispers Lynda.
At one point, both men begin pushing the official Israeli line. They are aware that I am an investigative journalist. This fact appears to be actually firing them up – they apparently want to talk and they don’t mind to be quoted.
“The entire community is now Israeli. We all have Israeli mentality – we are open minded, educated; we travel…”
“Look at this man”, they point at the owner of the falafel restaurant who, with his Ottoman-style mustache and small, intelligent eyes, observes us from the distance. “His son is a lawyer. His daughter studied special education and now she works with mental patients in Spain.”
I ask them about Syria.
“We are with the revolution! We’d like to see the difference in the region. We don’t want people to be calling for jihad.” Both men are in full agreement. “Israel will never return Golan Heights to Syria; unless the water issue is resolved and the UN is involved. And even then, for the security reasons, Israel will have to retain the hills.”
The tall man has Israeli passport. The Lebanese man has Israeli permanent residency.
How many people here support President Assad?
“Half and half”, they say. I know it is not true. Most of people we spoke to support him.
Then it begins: barrage of clichés, they were holding forth for almost an hour. The Lebanese man begins his speech:
“It is clear that Islam aims at being the enemy of the world… Look at what is happening in Egypt… I am even afraid to go back to Lebanon, now; afraid even to visit. All those Hezbollah spies there. I love Israel!”
Tall, local/‘Idaho Man’ joins this serenading to Israel: “People here know how to live in peace with Jewish community. Sure, some 10% protest against the occupation. But almost all young people believe that Israel is their home. Now the Golan Heights is the quietest, the most peaceful area of Israel.”
Eventually, both men depart. Yes, the Golan Heights is extremely quiet part of the world. It is because some 80% of the local people were kicked out from their homes. It is because their hamlets, villages and towns were destroyed. It is because the monstrous fences were erected. Both men also forgot to mention that terrible humming from the tops of all local hills – the radars, radios, listening devices. And they forgot to mention tanks and armored vehicles, moving up and down the narrow roads.
Golan Heights – the land of cherries and apples, of ruins of villages and towns, of Israeli commandoes playing war games inside destroyed Syrian buildings.
As two men leave, we go straight to the owner of falafel restaurant.
“You make the best falafel on earth”, I tell him, which is undeniable truth. “Now please, tell me what do you think about what is happening in Syria?”
“I am very upset about the situation there”, he replies, slowly. “There is so much damage, so much suffering, again. It is not correct what is happening there. I worry about my family across the border. Many people here call those ‘revolutionaries’ in Syria – the terrorists. Was the situation better before the ‘uprising’ began? Most definitely.”
It is our second day here, the end of the second day.
A small group gathers inside of the sweets shop. Food in Majdal al-Shams is exquisite. The outspokenness of the local people is simply remarkable.
And what we hear from the local people is exactly the opposite from what is served to us by the official Israeli propaganda:
“We want to go back to Syria. Rebels are terrorists. Assad is on the West’s way to Iran; the West and Israel want to push him aside and have their path cleared towards Teheran. We all know that Qatar is paying for the ‘rebels’. If Russia and China do not give in to the West, Assad will never fall.”
Before we parted the previous day, the guard at the road to Lebanon clarified: “We are all connected with Syria here. We watch Syrian television; we are following the events. Most of the local people here identify themselves with Assad. We like Assad here. But in the West and in Israel, they simply hate intelligent Arab leaders. They like and support those idiots in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia!”
It is actually exactly the same point of view that I heard from people of Hatay, on the border between Turkey and Syria, where I investigated Western training camps that are manufacturing so called ‘Syrian Opposition’.
People also complain about the Israeli control of the housing stock. There has to be an official permit to build any new house, and such a permit costs a fortune. In this town alone, some 1.000 houses are lacking; Israelis simply do not allow Druze towns to grow – growth is reserved only for the Jewish settlements. People live in crammed conditions. The houses built without official permits get demolished.
And then we are told about the structure of ‘democracy’ in this occupied territory: “Syrian citizens – the great majority – have no right to vote. Israel imposes its own handpicked Druze representatives, to form so-called ‘village or town councils’. They all consist of collaborators and they carry Israeli passports and identification cards. It goes without saying that those councils are not here to serve the interests of the local population.”
As I drive towards the border with Lebanon, I am confronted by one of the most beautiful sceneries on earth: Mt. Hermon or Jabal al-Shaykh in Arabic – the tallest peak of Syria and now the ‘buffer zone’ between Syria and Israeli occupied Golan Heights. The top of the mountain is on the border between Syria and Lebanon.
As I drive further, my eyes fall on enormous Nimrod Fortress, built around 1229 by Al-Aziz Uthman, nephew of Saladin and younger son of Al-Adil I. It was named Qala’at al-Subeiba, “Castle of the Large Cliff” in Arabic and it was supposed to preempt an attack on Damascus by participants of the Sixth Crusade. How paradox this is! An enormous, powerful structure that used to protect Muslim world from aggression and terror coming from early Western imperialists, now appears to be helpless and obsolete, sadly hugging the cliff, unable to offer any resistance.
I am thinking about Joul Jamal. He told me, in Haifa: “Israel will be forced to return Golan Heights, one day. But it will not do it voluntarily. Colonialists have to be forced to withdraw. Palestine and Golan Heights, they are very important: as they are at the frontline of the war against imperialism.”
I am also thinking about great Israeli novelist Amos Oz and what I just recently read:
One of the things which makes this conflict particularly hard is the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian, the Israeli-Arab conflict, is essentially a conflict between two victims. Two victims of the same oppressor. Europe, which colonized the Arab world, exploited it, humiliated it, trampled upon its culture, controlled it and used it as an imperialistic playground, is the same Europe which discriminated against the Jews, persecuted them, harassed them, and finally, mass-murdered them in an unprecedented crime of genocide. Now, you would have thought that two victims immediately develop between themselves a sense of solidarity – as, for instance, in the poetry of Berthold Brecht. But in real life, some of the worst conflicts are precisely the conflicts between two victims of the same oppressor…
Then I reach the borderline with Lebanon. Yet another terrible fence consisting of barbed wire, electric grid, signs warning against landmines. There is a broken tree, a monument to a dead soldier, to a lost life.
I leave the car and walk along the dreadful perimeter. I am thinking about all those borders I saw in this part of the world which, centuries ago, was peaceful and open. Borders between Israel and Lebanon, between occupied Golan Heights and Syria, between Turkey and Syria, between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Palestinian West Bank, border between Egypt and Gaza, and so many other unnecessary frontiers.
It was all thoroughly messed up. There were no easy solutions. Western imperialism was fueling conflicts in the entire region; conflicts over oil, conflicts over geopolitical interests. The closest Western allies: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar and Turkey – all doing their share of destructive work, reducing and dividing this ancient part of our planet into some miserable and tiny facets of land separated by endless kilometers of barbed wire.
I began photographing the border perimeter. I did it intuitively. I felt very tired and sad.
Then the Israeli military vehicle stopped near me.
“Are you OK?” Again.
At this point I had enough. I waved my hand at the endless fence, at the minefields and I shouted at patrol car: “No, I am not. Are you?”
Like near Al-Qunaitra, the soldier was just a kid, a conscript, wearing glasses.
He grimaced. He moved his lips; as if saying ‘I know, I know, so what do we do?’
Then he smiled at me, before stepping on the accelerator.
“Are you sure you will be OK?”
“I will be OK”, I replied. And I added under my breath: ‘you and I will be OK. But I am not sure about the others.’
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.