GOLAN HEIGHTS, Israel, Sept. 4 (UPI, The Washington Post) — A tour bus perched atop the Golan Heights waits for tourists taking pictures of U.N. peacekeeping forces below. A young man hugs and kisses his girlfriend as someone takes their photo. All seem oblivious to the Israeli troops massed 1 kilometer to the south facing a Syrian army just over the hill and out of site to the north.
Welcome to the Golan Heights, where all is not as it seems.
I am standing with my friend David Hercky. We have just traveled from a meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, with the Slovak and Mexican ambassadors — old friends both. Milan Dubcek is the son of the famous Alexander Dubcek, who briefly led a democratic Czechoslovakia before the Soviet invasion of 1968 known as the Prague Spring. Frederico Salas is an old compatriot who we know from his postings in New York and Prague.
The afternoon sun blazes down at some 100 degrees. Birds fly overhead as though peace surrounds the area. Vineyards, some of Israel’s most famous, dot the landscape below and ahead of us. All this belies two countries at war. And, yet, Golan is the quietest of all of Israel’s simmering borders.
After meeting U.S. Ambassador Richard H. Jones and Ambassador Arthur Avnon, the deputy director general for science and culture, I had shoveled free the afternoon. David has offered to take me up to the North to several historic sites.
We stop at the baptism site of Jesus of Nazareth — at the Jordan River not far from Jericho — where groups of pilgrims have followed Jesus’ steps into the stream below. We travel around the Sea of Galilee, to the synagogue where Jesus prayed. A church, looking somewhat like a spaceship out of a science-fiction film, is now perched atop the site. Evidently it is an attempt by the Vatican not to desecrate the temple. It is nonetheless an insult to the Jewish people.
I am conscious of Jews, Christians and Muslims living side by side. I also feel the tension in the air — the tension of war, the tension of being in the middle of a war zone. We are now in Tiberius, a city that was hit by Katyusha rockets from Lebanon during last year’s Hezbollah-Israel battle. We drive to the Golan and agree to stop at a Druze-owned restaurant at the foot of the Golan. David knows the owner and has eaten there before.
The Druze are an ancient culture. A sect of Islam, they are permitted to serve in the Israeli armed forces. Druze live in the border areas between Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, though there is a large diaspora. The Druze in Israel are a bit like Turks in Germany; they are not quite at home in Israel — and they are shown great mistrust among their own brethren.
The restaurant is cramped, but somehow comfortable. The hosts are superbly friendly. The address me in Hebrew, I answer in English with a thank you in Arabic. They are pleased to be shown respect.
Israeli soldiers sit at tables and enjoy a respite from their long hours on duty. They are relaxed, but very much on guard — sentries stand near and on the sides. Most around me appear to accept this as normal. I like the Israelis, but they are in-your-face New York on turbo, which takes some getting used to.
There have been a series of backdoor meetings between the Syrians and Israelis about the Golan. The Syrians lost the Golan to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel has since kept it as a security perimeter. In 1998 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in secret negotiations with his Syrian counterpart, Hafez Assad, about transferring back the Golan with conditions. These conditions and what was said at the meetings — or if they even took place — continue to be a matter of contention.
Lebanon borders the Golan to the northwest. We travel though the city of Kiryat Shmona, and somewhere between Avivim and Kibbutz Malkia we stop at the security perimeter between Israel and Lebanon. The yards of the homes back up against the Lebanese border. David and I travel along the Northern Highway, which is a highway directly against the security zone into Lebanon. This is the area controlled by Hezbollah. It is also the area from which Israeli soldiers have been abducted.
A new Israeli command post high on the hill monitors our movements. We can see a security camera following our every move. David is not excited that I want to be here. “We are not getting out of the car,” he says somewhat irritated. I am agitated, but understand, and we continue to traverse the parameter and Northern Highway.
As the sun sets with us having arrived in Haifa, I look down below at this coastal city. From Stella Maris, the Carmelite church, it is peaceful. In the distance is Cyprus.
Many lives have been lost in here. The quiet belies the hard work ahead.
(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he sits on the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party.)