Golan Heights, Syria
The blue bereted soldier inspected our documentation from behind stylish, slightly sinister, wrap around sun glasses of the type often favoured by sports competitors and the military. His movements were lacklustre, those of a man bored by the monotony of sentry duty, and, judging by the insignia on his United Nations uniform, I suspected that he would rather be enjoying vodka back in his native Poland, instead of standing guard in the heat of the Holy Lands. Satisfied that the dramatic swirls, peaks and troughs of the Arabic script correctly accompanied the ministry of interior stamps he handed the papers back to our driver and, with a casual nod of the head, signalled his approval for us to proceed. As we edged forward, Ali punctuated the front seat silence he had cultivated since we left our hotel with a single word, ‘Golan’. He then gestured westward toward the verdant hills in the near distance. This would be where our road from Damascus would hit a dead end; any progress blocked by barbed wire, minefields and beyond that the Israeli army.
On the 10th of June 1967 the six day war was in its final stages. In just over 130 hours Israeli forces had defeated the military opposition offered by Egypt, Jordan and Syria with a series of brilliantly planned pre-emptive attacks. Citing the fear of an imminent assault by Arab forces, politicians in Tel Aviv had gambled on striking first in order to destroy the forces which encircled them. The level of their success out stripped their wildest dreams as Israeli troops quickly captured Jerusalem and the Sinai desert, decimating the Egyptian and Jordanian militaries in the process. By 8.30am on the final day Syrian forces were being engaged on the border and by mid morning the Golan Heights had been taken.
As a general rule I have found that men carrying Kalashnikovs rarely smile, and the balding member of the Syrian intelligence agency who halted us at the next checkpoint, proved to be no exception. Once again our papers were taken for close inspection but this time upon their return we also received an extra passenger in the form of an official government ‘minder’, who would accompany us for the remainder of the journey. Wearing a regulation black leather jacket, steady frown and perma-stubble, our new travelling companion instantly made his presence felt by berating Ali for announcing that we would soon be arriving at the ‘Israeli border’. Our enraged escort spun round from his seat to tell us that our driver was talking nonsense, in truth we would soon be visiting Israeli occupied Syria. My wife gave me a wide eyed look which suggested that, as usual, I had succeeded in ‘taking her to all the best places’.
Syrian anger regarding the Golan Heights is understandable given the ease with which such a large swathe of land was surrendered to Israel. Maps showing the pre 1967 border highlight the magnitude of the loss, and the shame of defeat was only partially restored by the successes of the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Then Syria showed it could match the Israeli army but the resulting military stalemate did not win back the Golan Heights. Today the area is controlled under the aegis of United Nations resolution 350, set up to monitor the ceasefire between the two sides. Constantly renewed every six months since 1974 the mandate allowed for the creation of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force which polices an 80 km long demilitarised buffer zone. This policing job, whilst ensuring not a shot has been fired in anger for over thirty years, has completely failed to provide the basis for a mutually agreed settlement. The result is little more than a refereed pause in hostilities.
‘Are they watching us now?’ I enquired of the Syrian army officers as we looked upwards towards the forest of aerials which marked the Israeli positions. ‘Oh yes’ one of them cheerily replied, ‘We both watch each other all the time’. The soldiers above us peered down from the top of the Golan Heights where the border is known locally as ‘alpha’. Several hundred metres below we stood on the ‘bravo’ side looking out from a wooden pier flanked by a minefield and the entrance to the border crossing. At this checkpoint a fenced corridor of no-mans land facilitates a steady flow of UN and Red Cross traffic but there exists no direct lines of communication between the Syrian and Israeli forces. Instead, all contact is channeled via the United Nations and, given that the latest Polish contingent was nearing the end of their tour, the two sides would soon be monitoring each other via a fresh collection of military mediators. As we watched a Polish officer strolled toward us from the ‘alpha’ section. ‘He is going home’, said one of the officers, ‘he cannot fly from that side’. ‘The Poles are good’ he continued with a grin, ‘but we have problems with the Japanese. Sometimes they don’t understand what we say’.
At one time Quneitra must have been a town envied for its beautiful location. Set a few kilometres back from the border zone nestled among rolling green fields and olive groves, with the towering Golan Heights as a blackdrop, locals would have enjoyed views which many would pack their suitcases to savour. Today the once bustling market town exists only in the memories of those who remember the streets before 1967. Then, the twenty thousand or so inhabitants fled in the face of advancing Israeli forces. They would never return. An agreement in 1974 saw the occupying troops withdraw to the current borders but orders were issued that Quinetra be destroyed. All salvagable materials were shipped back to Israel before sappers moved in with dynamite and bulldozers. The systematic demolition left behind a flattened town. The Syrian government chose not to rebuild and Quinetra is now a memorial to the Arab-Israeli wars.
Walking through the ruins today is a deeply unsettling experience. Despite being devoid of life the crumpled town feels restless and the slumped piles of concrete seem ill at ease with four decades of decay. There is a palpable feeling that here the pages of history remain unturned. Over the years intermittent talks between the two governments have not yielded a final peace agreement, so the battered streets of Quneitra are visited only by politicans, UN troops and the curious. Of the few buildings still intact, the bullet riddled hospital offers the best views of the area. Standing on the roof we looked out across the town towards the Golan Heights, squinting slightly through the haze of the mid morning sun. The warm breeze complemented the beautiful vista and even our ‘minder’ seemed moved enough to forget his earlier anger at my efforts to point my camera towards places he had identified as prohibited. Back in the car his mood changed again when local workers gave us some of the apples which, thanks to an agreement in 2005, are the only produce to be transported eastward across the border.
While we tucked into the juicy fruit he toyed with his gift until passing it back to us shaking his head. I’m not sure if this generosity was a product of Syrian hospitality or if his stern expression betrayed a dislike not of apples, but the location of the orchard.
How to get there
The Golan Heights are a two hour drive from Damascus. Entry permits need to be obtained the day prior to travel from the Ministry of the Interior. Many of the hotels can arrange this documentation, or you can go in person and queue up. Either way the authorities will need to see your passport.
My very brief history of the six day war barely touches the political complexities of the Arab Israeli dispute. Further reading is essential. I heartily recommend
- Jeremy Bowen - Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East
- Robert Fisk - The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East