Seeking Peace in the Golan Heights

Click here for more pictures of Israel

By David Abel | Globe Staff | 2/11/2011

GOLAN HEIGHTS, Israel – In this disputed land, secluded waterfalls are bound by minefields, rolling, flower-filled hills are etched by tank treads, and dairy farms border live-fire zones, close enough that the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapons accompanies the mooing of cows.

The dark soil, rich from ancient volcanic eruptions and millennia of cultivation, had been a battleground for years between Syria and Israel, which seized the strategic highlands during the Six-Day War in 1967 and parried a Syrian effort to retake the area in 1973. The legacy of that conflict remains visible in the remnants of old tanks rusting on the hillsides and more modern arms at the ready nearly everywhere else.

Over the last three decades, however, this windswept territory with a temperate climate has been transformed into a breadbasket of Israel, giving rise to kumquat and apple groves, spicy cabernets and tangy olive oil, sweet milk chocolate and dainty pastries. There are now artist colonies and multimillion-dollar industries, hot springs and ski slopes, and settlers and soldiers who drink tea and eat falafel at shops owned by local Druze, the thousands of Muslims who live here and still identify as Syrian.

“This place is really heaven,” said Tzvi Raish, 31, who has spent the past four years working at the Golan Heights Winery, which is expanding and planning for the future as if it were in Napa Valley. “Everything here moves at a better pace. It’s quiet and slow. It feels like the definition of peace.”

I had long read about this small patch of earth from the comfortable distance of New England, where the equation to end the madness of the persisting conflict seemed so simple: Israel should trade much of the Golan Heights for a viable peace agreement with Syria, just as the Jewish state and Egypt did with the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel also occupied in 1967.

But the clarity of such a straight-forward formula, a version of which nearly came to fruition during peace talks three years ago, began to dissolve after I spent a few days last month roaming from the serene waters of the Sea of Galilee in the south to the foothills of the snowcapped peaks of Mount Hermon in the north.

In my short time here, it became easier to appreciate how difficult it would be for Israel to cede the valuable high ground to its longtime enemy and how both sides could harbor such an intense attachment to the beauty and bounty of this stark land, where about 40,000 people now live, almost evenly split between Jews and Druze.

Indeed, the prospect for a peace agreement anytime soon became even more doubtful in recent weeks as a wave of unrest swept through the Arab world, raising concerns here about the durability of Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. While some have suggested that peace with Syria could bolster the previous agreements and muffle simmering tensions between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which borders the northern Golan, many here who were dubious before now feel it’s even more unlikely.

Among those I met who long for the stability of real peace but question whether such a pact is possible was Tamar Sorkin, 59, an artist who has lived here since 1983 in a barbed wire-surrounded settlement that now has 150 families.

Like many Israelis who have settled in the Golan, Sorkin first came when she served in the Army. “I loved it,” she said while at work in the shop where she sells her colorful paintings. “I decided to stay because I thought it would be a great experience to build a new place.”

She has trouble imagining leaving. “This is my home,” she said “But I really want peace.”

A few weeks later, after the revolt in Egypt, she wrote me an email expressing her deep doubts. “In this hectic region, where everything can change in a moment, it would be a sound policy, I think, to be very cautious,” she said. “Of course, I want peace now, but in this neighborhood of ours, to make peace you have to carry a big stick, and in the meantime live as normal a life as possible, making wine and olive oil and thinking about what gift to give my grandson for his birthday.”

I came to the Golan after spending a few weeks traveling through Egypt and Jordan, where my fiancée Jess and I met a number of people who – despite the years of peace – still regarded Israel as their enemy. Still, there were others who insisted that, even if the peace remained cold, it made sense and would endure in new regimes.

I wanted to know what the people here thought and how they co-existed even though their countries are still technically at war.

Our trip to Israel started in the southern city of Eilat, where we had arrived after walking across a demilitarized, no-man’s land from the adjacent Jordanian city of Aqaba. Unlike the border post in Jordan, the one in Eilat was adorned with images from the 1994 peace treaty signing in Washington, including one endearing photo of King Hussein lighting a cigarette for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

We took a five-hour bus ride from the beachside city in the Negev Desert to Haifa, the country’s largest city in the north. The next afternoon we rented a car and drove from the old port on the Mediterranean coast along a modern highway to the Galilee.

After a few hours in traffic, we arrived at night under a canopy of stars that mingled with the twinkling lights of Tiberias along the west coast in Israel proper and the settlements on the Golan’s rocky plateau to the east. We followed a winding road along the large lake, where Jesus was said to have walked on water, and climbed the steep hills of the Golan before coming to the gate of Givat Yoav, one of the territory’s first Israeli settlements founded shortly after the Six-Day War.

It’s a sleepy place of squat homes and dairy farms and we had come to stay in a yurt at a Mongolian-styled tent village built by Sara and Benzi Zafrir, both of whom have lived here for decades. After inviting us to their house for dinner, they talked about the history of the land and told us where to find ruins from the many civilizations that had ruled the region, including ancient Israelites, Romans, Assyrians, and Persians. We also discussed what the land meant to them after so many years here and whether they would ever agree to leave.

“I have two hats on this question,” Benzi Zafrir said. “I live here, and this is my home. I don’t want to leave. But I wear another hat. That hat is that I live in Israel, and if the government tells me we must go for peace, well, we will go.”

As we drove from the hills in the south to the mountains in the north, stopping at wineries and chocolate makers and passing military vehicles and war memorials along the way, we met settlers and soldiers, recent immigrants and shopkeepers, each of whom talked about their mistrust of the Syrian regime and fears that a peace agreement would once again allow Syria to use the high ground to shell Israel. Others said they were satisfied with the status quo and noted that the Golan has been among Israel’s least violent borders since 1973, when Syria launched a surprise attack here on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

But we also met Druze who said that while they were comfortable here and had good relations with their Jewish neighbors, in the end, they wanted this land to revert to Syrian control, as it had been since Syria declared its independence in 1946, two years before Israel.

“I have complicated feelings and the future is a very hard question,” said Naeif Gorzallden, 45, who sells sweets in a village near Mount Hermon and has lived in the Golan all his life.

Like many Druze who live here, he speaks Hebrew and welcomes his Israeli customers, but he lacks a passport and wants to be reunited with his family across the border.

“This is a developed country and there is the rule of law here,” Gorzallden said. “But Syria is my culture. I think it would be easier if it was part of Syria.”

Sahar Safadi, 27, who owns a nearby restaurant and also grew up in the Golan, thinks he would earn a better living if the land remains part of Israel. But he, too, feels disconnected from his culture and explained the hardship of seeing his family.

“Because I don’t have Israeli citizenship, I don’t have a passport, and that makes me stateless,” he said. “That’s not right, and I have to say, this is Syrian land. But the only answer to solving any of these questions is peace.”

He added: “More than anything, we all want peace.”

David Abel can be reached at


The Depths of the Western Wall

By David Abel

JERUSALEM — The giant slabs of limestone, which have remained standing for two millennia despite repeated efforts to demolish them, make up the most sacred structure in the world for Jews, the ancient wall that once protected the Temple Mount.

Since at least the time when Roman legions destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, has been a source of longing and lament for Jews around the world, a focal point for their bygone glory and their yearning for a new unity in a Third Temple.

The area around the wall — or Kotel, in Hebrew — had been off-limits to Jews for many years before Israel seized the Old City in Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. Since then, it has attracted Jews from around the world who come here to pray, leave notes for God, or celebrate a bar mitzvah or wedding.

Over these intervening years, Israeli archeologists have excavated the area and found that the wall — which is considered holy because it is as close to the most sacred chamber of the First and Second Temples as Jews can worship — is just a small portion of what amounts to a 1,600-foot-long retaining wall that was hidden underground as succeeding generations built over it.

The painstaking work of exploring the underworld along the hidden portion of the Western Wall has led to perhaps the most interesting and controversial tour in Jerusalem, one that has to be made by appointment.

In 1996, when Israel began allowing visitors into the tunnels below the Temple Mount — where Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third most sacred site of Islam, now stand — it sparked violence that left nearly 100 people dead. Muslims feared the Israelis were burrowing underground in an effort to destroy the Dome of the Rock, where they believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The tunnels have enabled Jews an even closer place to worship the so-called Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the First Temple, where the Ten Commandments were said to have been kept in the Ark of the Covenant and near the Foundation Stone, which Jews believe was the first stone God used to create the world.

It also allows tourists a perch to see the breadth of the wall and the area’s long arc of history, everything from a Byzantine pool to a Roman street to an aqueduct built by the Maccabeans in 2 BC.

The tour starts with a “secret passage’’ that opens to a vaulted hall with evenly cut stones that were hewn at least 2,000 years ago, during the time of the Second Temple. It passes rows of massive, less evenly carved stones along the Western Wall, some weighing more than 600 tons. There are remnants of ancient gates used to enter the Temple Mount, a medieval cistern, ancient quarries, pools, and a dam.

There is also an audiovisual exhibit that includes a mockup of the Temple Mount on which stood the First and Second Temples — before they were destroyed — and shows how the area has changed over the centuries.

The narrow, dimly lighted passages are filled with explanatory signs and guides who help synthesize the long, complicated history. There are also devout Jews facing the wall and praying throughout the tunnels.

A passage from a tour brochure sums up the importance of the area for Jews: “Here at the foot of the Western Wall, more than any other place on earth, the memories of the Jewish past mingle with the hopes of the Jewish future.’’

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.