South Lebanon in Miniature

Har Dov outpost is one of the world's most scenic, but don't tell that to the soldiers stuck there.

Soldiers of the Shaham battalion, part of the Nahal Brigade, say that according to National Geographic magazine the Ramata observation post, 1,194 meters above sea level, is one of the six or ten most scenic lookouts in the world - opinions differ on the exact ranking.

The eye, accustomed to looking at this peak from the Hula Valley below, is now drawn to the Naftali mountains on the other side of the valley, to the Ayoun Valley in Lebanon, and to the war-torn land that the Israel Defense Forces left in May 2000 - the Litani bend, the Beaufort ridge and the Ali Taher ridge.

To the northeast the Har Dov ridge continues its rise - in its center the site of the biblical btarim covenant between God and Abraham, and to its right, snow-covered Mt. Hermon. The eye comes full circle via the Golan Heights that curve gently southward, and comes back down to the Hula Valley.

It would be interesting to know whether the editors at National Geographic are aware that this rare observation post is manned by Hadas, an IDF outpost. This is shelled from time to time; it is reached via armored convoy; the view is absorbed through holes in camouflage netting, and the soldiers serving in this amazing landscape would much rather be in the territories, where the "real action" is.

This is because Har Dov is actually a miniature South Lebanon of convoys, outposts and shelling, the closest in both nature and proximity to what was. Here, however, the combat is a bit sterile, without "seeing the whites of the enemies' eyes," and the lulls in the shelling are so long that after six months the soldiers and commanders want to get back to where the main operations are.

The Har Dov ridge, two kilometers wide and 14 km long, rises above the north-eastern tip of the Hula Valley to a height of 1,529 meters above sea level. It is separated from Mt. Hermon by the Sion River. This area was captured in the Six Day War from Syria and annexed to Israel with the whole of the Golan Heights, but the IDF's withdrawal in May 2000 reawakened the dispute over the previous sovereignty over the region - Syrian or Lebanese.

French Mandate officials, who until the 1940s governed both Syria and Lebanon as a single unit, never bothered to demarcate the exact border between the two states, and it was left vague after the mandate ended. French documents indicate that Lebanese farmers, residents of the village of Shaba, worked the lands of the ridge west of the Sion valley and grazed their sheep there in winter - thus the area name, "the Shaba Farms."

Any excuse

The Lebanese have documents attesting to Lebanese shepherding in the area, as well as building permits, but the United Nations ruled that the Shaba Farms belong to Syria, which has so far not officially relinquished its claim to them. Hezbollah doesn't care about this.

Since the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah claims it was incomplete - because the IDF still controls Har Dov - and use this as an excuse to continue fighting against the IDF, mainly in the Shaba Farms themselves. In the past three years Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's men have attacked Israeli outposts on the mountain about 30 times, half of these during two weeks of constant shelling during Operation Defensive Shield.

Seven IDF soldiers have been killed in Hezbollah operations in Har Dov since the pullout, including the three who were kidnapped and taken to Lebanon. The IDF response to that development was a bit delayed, isolating the mountain and building a developed defense line that has proved itself in reducing the number of casualties - from four in the second half of 2000 to two in 2001, one in 2002 and no fatalities in 2003.

Tranquility disrupted

The fence built by the IDF stretches the whole length of the road from the tank junction to Kfar Ghajar, separating Har Dov from Israel. Apart from serving as a second line of defense after the outposts, protecting against terrorist infiltrations from Lebanon, the fence prevents Jews from going up to pray on the mountain of the btarim covenant.

There, according to tradition, God promised Abraham, "To your seed shall I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates," and told him of the slavery awaiting his descendents in Egypt and the Exodus from there with great possessions (Genesis 15). Although the fence prevents Jews from reaching the spot, it does not prevent them from trying, and a few have been caught wandering in the Sion River.

After a few minutes wait beside the gate in the fence, a jeep arrives and a soldier jumps out. Using a simple padlock key he opens the gate to the "playing field" between Israel and the Hezbollah, where everything is permitted - to shell and to return fire, to attack and to bomb in return.

As long as no Israeli soldiers or Lebanese civilians are killed, the responses are mild. Even though Hezbollah started the attacks, Israel chose not to escalate the counterattack situation and to respond only by protecting the mountain from shelling, making the Shaba Farms a convenient battlefield for both sides.

Seeds of war

The road climbs sharply from the fence up the side of Har Dov, and the term Shaba Farms take on real meaning. Scattered between the trees all along the road are small groups of crumbling structures - storerooms for seeds that were once used by the Lebanese farmers in this area. In its announcements regarding the shelling of IDF positions on Har Dov, Hezbollah use the Lebanese names for the locations.

Apart from the road, the mountain looks like a nature reserve with dense groves, beautiful and quiet - battlefields and military fences do not attract entrepreneurs and tourism developments, to the chagrin of the Golan regional council, in whose jurisdiction Har Dov lies.

After one of the bends the pastoral scene is disrupted by an IDF base, Nahal Sion, built in the uniform style of the outposts on the northern border since the withdrawal. The outpost is manned by members of the Shaham battalion, which is spread out in this area. Sion is an internal position, relatively far from the battle lines, although it too has been hit by Hezbollah mortar fire a few times.

From here convoys leave for the other four outposts on the mountain. The outposts on the Lebanese border are named after plants, in alphabetical order (in Hebrew) from northeast to southwest - Aster, Balut (acorn), Gladiola, Dahlia, Hadas (myrtle) and Zivanit (mayflower).

The sudden rumble of trucks from the other side of the wall protecting the outpost breaks the tranquility, heralding the return of a convoy that delivered provisions to the Zivanit outpost. A large civilian truck stops behind the dining hall and unloads boxes. "At first it was scary," says one of the trucking company's workers, "but not anymore."

Preparations are being made for a trip to the Hadas outpost. The convoy of Hummer armored vehicles reviews procedures before departing, checking bulletproof vests, helmets, rifle magazines. The commander of the convoy reviews the dangers awaiting them outside the outpost - roadside charges, anti-tank rockets and encounters with Hezbollah units.

Nasrallah's threats to kidnap more Israelis echo in the soldiers' heads as the commander reiterates the need to prevent kidnapping at any cost, to pursue the kidnappers and the kidnapped and to call for reinforcements immediately.

The road to the Hadas outpost passes by the site of the Btarim covenant. There is no feeling of holiness when the Hummers stop on command in the middle of nowhere and everyone gets out of their vehicles. It is so quiet, so special and beautiful, the Hermon watching us all the time, but on the two peaks facing us, on the other side of Wadi Marar, are the Gladiola and Dahlia outposts.

Helmets at all times

After a short exercise on the side of Btarim Mountain, we look to our left, to Lebanon. The officer, who spent several long months there, speaks of the landscape without nostalgia.

The most noticeable thing about the Hadas outpost is the helmets. Every single soldier, including the outpost commander, has his helmet in his hand at all times - in the washroom, in the dining hall, and beside the bed, ready to put it on for protection at any moment. Between the rooms and under the concrete roof there are red lines on the floor. The roof protects against mortars, rockets and shells fired by Hezbollah, and the red lines, far from the corners, mark the safe areas, beyond which a person could be hit by lethal shrapnel.

"Har Dov is like old Lebanon," says a senior officer in the Nahal Brigade, "and I have tried to apply my personal experience there to the soldiers. There are strong outposts here that have to be maintained, extended infantry ambushes and mobile operations - on foot and armored, like in South Lebanon; the threats are similar too.

"The advantage there was the South Lebanon Army - we could halt our movement between the outposts, and provisions would still arrive. We would like to reduce the travel between outposts and from that point of view to create South Lebanon, because we know that the convoys are a weak spot.

"There are more restrictions on Har Dov than there were in Lebanon, because there a mistake was tolerable," adds the officer, "but we are trying not to bring the soldiers into situations in which there is room for indecision, and to give them clear orders for opening fire. The moment there is any firing, the soldiers have full rights to respond. It is easier to create a clear situation here and to identify someone as a hostile element, because this is a totally military zone; there are no civilians here.

"The main complexity of Har Dov is that this is not a classic battle line. Even though there is no friction with a civilian population and it is easy to maintain operational readiness, the number of incidents is small. Every battalion on Har Dov has been tested by only one or two incidents, and we have to keep the soldiers consciously prepared, so that they will be ready for that one incident - will understand that they are in an incident and will function as required.

"This demands a lot of exercises and a high level of operational routine. The soldiers want very much to leave here and go to Hebron, even though the battalion there went through difficult incidents like the attack on the worshipers route. The incidents the soldiers here are facing are different - a type of threat to which they are not accustomed, and a soldier who experiences a shelling on Har Dov looks different."