QUNEITRA OVERLOOK, Golan Heights – The beginning of the school year is usually a dead time for local tourism up on this rocky plateau. But in recent days, steady trickles of Israeli visitors have been turning up to engage in a rather unconventional pastime.
Its not the fruit picking or nature reserves, for which this north-easternmost part of the country is known, that beckon them these days. Rather, these folks have come to get front-row seats to the war waging in their backyard – for a change, one in which Israel is not directly involved. Armed with binoculars and cameras, they search for those locations overlooking the Quneitra valley that provide the best possible views of battles between Syrian government troops and rebel forces, as the action shifts from day to day, and lately, even hour to hour.
Civil war broke out in Syria two-and-a-half years ago, but recent days have seen quite a bit of action right below this spot, with rebel forces seizing control of the strategic border crossing with Israel and progressing northward from there.
Some of the Israeli voyeurs stop for just a few minutes, during their breaks from work or other activities, to get a quick look. They make use of the coin-operated binoculars already available at some of these overlooks, though originally installed for very different purposes. For others, who lug along folding chairs, coffee and even water pipes, it can become a full-day activity.
Spectators at Israel's Mount Bental Overview, September 3, 2014. Photo: Gil Eliahu.
They wait for signs of the rebel forces darting in and out of abandoned buildings below. When gunshots are fired, they search for the direction they came from in order to figure out whether the attackers were government troops or rebel forces. They look to see which flags are hoisted on the poles near certain buildings – a key indication of which side has prevailed that day or hour. They watch to see where mortar shells and rockets land and where sniper fire hits. They point out plumes of smoke from recent hits, and when a particularly loud explosion is heard, they sometimes burst into applause.
For some, with no vested interest, its become a sort of spectator sport. Others – and these clearly represent the majority – are deeply concerned that the radical Islamic rebel forces will topple the Syrian government, threatening what has long been Israels safest border. A day of scouting on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights revealed three of the most popular spots among Israelis to watch the war in Syria:
Israeli soldiers and spectators at the Mount Bental Overview, September 3, 2014. Photo: Gil Eliahu.
* Quneitra Overlook – Located just a bit north of Kibbutz Ein Zivan on the main road, this overlook is known by the regulars as the mirpeset, or veranda. The UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) base, which was overrun by Al-Qaida-affiliated rebels last week, is in full view from here. Just left of the UN base are the ruins of the old town of Quneitra, mostly deserted since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and north of there, farther out in the distance, is the new and much larger town of Quneitra.
Four men from the Druze village of Bukata in the Golan Heights have set up camp here on folding chairs under a tree. They serve each other black coffee in paper cups and share a pack of Time cigarettes. We come every day, says one member of the group, who asks not to be identified. Its like watching a movie. Were just waiting for the Syrian army to recapture the border crossing.
The Quneitra Overlook, September 3, 2014. Photo: Gil Eliahu.
Marwan, an Arab from Haifa, says he decided to take the day off work when the army announced it was safe to come again to the lookout – it had been blocked off by the military for several days over concerns that the fierce fighting would spill over the border. About 10 minutes ago I heard cannon fire from there, he points down toward the left.
Asked which side in the Syrian civil war he supports, Marwan responds diplomatically: I support the right thing – that everyone be allowed to live well.
Syrian rebels near the border, as seen from the Israeli side, September 2, 2014. Photo: Gil Eliahu.
Eli, from the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, is one of the regulars here. I come every other day, he says, introducing his wife, who looks a bit bored. On medical leave following surgery, he says he finds war-watching an interesting way to fill his free time. The other day I saw lots of rebels hiding out over there, he says, pointing to the left. Its like watching a game. One side shoots at the other.
Ziad, a lawyer from Majdal Shams, the largest Druze town in the Golan, has just arrived from the courthouse, still wearing the compulsory white shirt and black tie. I came because Im very worried the rebels will maintain control of the border crossing, he says. If they do, thatll be a danger for the whole area, and thats why our hearts are with [Syrian President Bashir] Assad.
Visitors smoke water pipes at the Quneitra Overlook, September 3, 2014. Photo: Gil Eliahu.
The border crossing, manned by the UN peacekeeping forces, is the only means of passage for Druze residents of Israel into Syria, where many study.
Jojo, another Druze from the area, has arrived with a Jewish friend who lives about an hour away, near Tiberias. The two work together at one of the local kibbutzim and have taken advantage of their afternoon break to see whats going on across the border. Im most concerned about the Druze in Syria, says Jojo. I have lots of family there, so its important for me to be able to see whats going on with my own eyes.
* Mount Bental Overview – A short drive to the north is the Mount Bental Overview, which provides war-watchers a much higher vantage point for the action. Because it is 1,160 meters above sea level, it also provides a panoramic view of a much larger area that also includes the Galilee. Managed by Merom Golan, the first kibbutz established after Israel captured the territory from Syrian in the 1967 Six-Day War, the overview is right near a popular café with spectacular views known as Coffee Anan (anan is Hebrew for cloud, and a cashier explains that the name was inspired by the heavy clouds that usually cover the mountain in the morning, and not by the former UN secretary general).
Israel's Mount Bental Overview, September 3, 2014. Photo: Gil Eliahu.
Unlike the Galilee and other areas of Israel where Jesus once roamed, the Golan doesnt usually attract many pilgrimage groups. But this particular afternoon, two large ones are here at Mount Bental, one from the United States and one from the Czech Republic. Betsey and Henry Jacquez, from Ohio, seem a bit shaken up as they walk back to their bus. I didnt know I would hear bombs, and you can hear them very clearly from here, says Betsey. It made me sick to my stomach, to be honest.
Cindy Kish, who is also on their tour, says she was actually glad the group made this stop. Because were Christians, it was important that we see whats going on, she says. Those are our Christian brothers and sisters over there in Syria who are being persecuted.
Israel's Mount Bental Overview, September 3, 2014. Photo: Gil Eliahu.
Three burly Israeli men are pointing down below to the scorched kibbutz fields. Probably some leakage, remarks one of them, using the term commonly used to describe rocket and mortar fire that accidently hits Israel.
In a relatively concealed corner, two Canadian members of the UN peacekeeping forces are observing developments below through big binoculars, as an American couple and their Israeli guide walk by. Whats to stop us from going into Syria? the woman asks the guide, clearly impressed by the almost seamless way the two countries seem joined. Nothing, responds her guide. Its getting back thats the problem.
* Oz 77 Military Outpost – Not far from Emek Habakha, the area of the Golan where major tank battles were fought during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, this old IDF outpost is known among locals as having some of the best views of the territory north of Quneitra.
Dudu, a ginger-haired kibbutznik from nearby El-Rom, knows by heart the names of each and every village and hill on the other side of the border. A regular at this spot, where the winds are exceptionally strong, he maintains its the best place to see the action. See that town over there, he points toward the horizon. Its been a ghost town for a year. And that over there, he moves his finger to the left, thats a Syrian quarry. That over there is a Syrian outpost, and there you have an Israeli outpost.
Dudu Morad, from Kibbutz El-Rom, at the Oz 77 Military Outpost, September 3, 2014. Photo: Gil Eliahu.
Just as a swirl of black smoke rises from a patch of earth below, where a mortar shell has just hit, two men park their car and join the kibbutnik at the top of the hill. Shaul, who lives in England, says hes here visiting with his friend Avi from Jerusalem, and theyve decided to spend a day up north.
And what brings them to this particular spot? We wanted to see how bad things are, responds Avi, who proceeds to ask the local kibbutznik for his take on the situation.
What I can tell you is were definitely not moving one inch from here, responds Dudu. If those kibbutzim down south can live for 14 years under Hamas rocket fire, you think we cant deal with this?
Shaul tells Dudu its important to look at the bright side of things. With all that fighting going on down there below, you can rest assured no one will ever ask you to leave this place, he says. Israel will never return the Golan Heights to Syria now.
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