Northern Exposure

On the surface, Katzrin seems the picture of tranquility. You might think you were in Omaha, Nebraska. On the road from the Yehudiya junction to Katzrin, traffic trickles by. The national drought is evident here as well: The landscape is a bit faded and there is more rock than green visible. All along the road, which is 26 kilometers long, there isn't a single election billboard. No posters, no stickers, nothing. And in the late morning hours in the provincial town, the pace is slow. The atmosphere is sleepy and apolitical.

"Actually there is an election sign at the southern entrance, outside the Levy family's house, and a few more further on," says Topaz Barkai, spokeswoman for the Katzrin municipality. She hastens to correct the impression that people in the Golan Heights are ignoring the election and not only the election ignoring the issue of the Golan.

When we emerge from the car at the Nofei Gola School, a guard hastens toward us. Who and what are you, please? All around are heavy iron bars and pistols. Next to the fence six youngsters, of the likable whippersnapper sort, await. They ask for cigarettes. They have come from their school in another settlement in the Golan Heights. Why? Just because, it doesn't matter. If you want, you're invited to join us in the evening for a smoke. Not this kind, that kind.

Like them, the two female soldiers sitting alone at a pizzeria aren't locals. They've stopped en route and response cautiously to the question of whether they are from Katzrin. No, she's not. And also in the commercial center, the heart of the town, few people pass by. Maybe it's the recession. Guy, the photographer, discerns larger quantities of vodka than usual in the shops and convenience store.

"Katzrin," relates Mayor Sami Bar-Lev, "is a microcosm of Israel. The population has come here from kibbutzim and moshavim, from the large cities, people who were born here, immigrants, religious people, secular people." But it is hard to see a group of more than two or three adults in town. Most of the passersby seem introspective. Few say whom they will be voting for. Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu, Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman, Shas, Ahdut Yisrael. The winds are blowing in Katzrin. Are these the breezes of the Provence-style pastorale that waft in the "Golanland" brochures distributed by the Golan Settlements Committee? Or are they the ghostly winds of a unsolved murder mystery in a remote town which ticks with the question of its very existence?

7,500 on a good day

More than anything, Katzrin needs people and they are hardly flocking here. Thirty-one years ago, Katzrin, "the Golan city," was established for approximately 20,000 inhabitants. Today it has 7,500, in a generous estimate. Since immigration from the former Soviet Union ended, business hasn't picked up. Bar-Lev, who has been mayor since 1988, fights for every resident.

So why is the place stuck?

"Katzrin has to be exposed more to the public," he explains, "and a [wider] variety of employment made available to families. For example, the Tzahar area is developing and it's less than half an hour's drive from here."

The medical school planned for "the slopes of Safed," which some day might become a university, will in his assessment change the entire eastern Galilee and the Golan heights. In any case, the town's current marketing strategy stresses the quality of life, the natural beauty and the landscape, trying to blur the border between the Golan and the Galilee ("You didn't even notice the border on the way here") and ignoring national or security elements.

Perhaps this is why Bar-Lev, who is identified with the Likud ("But first and foremost the Golan Heights party") doesn't find it difficult to embarrass his comrades from the right as well.

"The Golan isn't like other territories, like the Gaza area, which was easy to give up and evacuate inhabitants from. Did anyone feel that it was part of the state? Who went to tour there? It became something strange and foreign, sectoral. That's a fact. In our part of the country, there isn't what's called control over a foreign people. You didn't pass a single roadblock along the way, Qassams weren't fired and stones weren't thrown.

"The Golan Heights, as a fact, is felt to be a part of the state. In all of the surveys and public opinion polls about 70 percent of citizens aren't prepared to give it up. This is very strong."

The geopolitical changes in the region are fundamental, as far as he is concerned. Iran is now enemy No. 1 and an attempt to make peace with Syria - to weaken Iran - may prompt many Israelis to consider relinquishing the Golan Heights.

"No, not to that extent," says Bar-Lev. "This support is long-term. The sense of most of the public is love for the Golan and a feeling of ownership. This still hasn't taken hold among the politicians, and also in most of the media. They're still living in slogans, in the feeling that this is a territory that some day will be given up. The public is already in a different place. We are identifying the fact that maybe we haven't invested enough in media people, in politicians. Even with senior elements in the army we have a problem."

In the army?

"The chief of staff today. Look, if [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak told Haaretz not long ago that it's important to conduct negotiations, and that his position is also supported by the chief of staff and the head of military intelligence - or maybe it was [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert who said this, but related the same thing in this context."

Is there support abroad? Are you raising funds from Jews overseas?

"Abroad there's zero. In this we haven't succeeded. We've become experts at bringing in funds from the government of Israel which has lots of money, which doesn't always go to the right places."

"It's better that we're not in the headlines in the election," says Bar-Lev, "and we are also waiting for them with a lot of indifference. So what. In any case there will be someone else instead of the current prime minister, who is one of the worst of the worst. The one who rescued [Syrian President Bashar] Assad from international excommunication in return for nothing. Because if he had signed a peace agreement maybe he would have been remembered by history."

The coalition of Netanyahu and Barak, two who have already agreed to a concession on the Golan, will also not make much of a difference, argues Bar-Lev.

But with a Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition, you can relax.

"Not really, but ... there will be a need to promote the issue of the referendum, to continue to develop, to bring in more people."

The making of a murder

The made-for-TV movie "Who Killed Tair Rada" was partly inspired by "Twin Peaks," the series in which horrors and bizarre things take place in a quiet, provincial town. The series "Pillars of Smoke," which is being broadcast on Hot, in which bizarre characters move on an abandoned stretch of land, is set in the Golan. It is doubtful the location would have been chosen before Rada's murder, the media coverage of Katzrin and the mystery of whether or not the murderer had indeed been apprehended. Off the record, people here are convinced Roman Zadorov was indeed the murderer, without a doubt, and the case is closed.

Tair's story has created problems for the town's public image.

"The murder of a young girl at school is something horrifying, the biggest tragedy I can imagine. For her and for her family. It's clear that this has had tremendous repercussions in the media, because of the incident, the people involved and everything. It's difficult."

For many people, the Golan, which was once perceived as a tranquil and flourishing success story, now suddenly looks like a lifeless twilight zone.

"No, no. Not now. In the first period, maybe in the first months, it was at the top of the headlines - and this certainly affected the image, but today this isn't the case any longer. Since then, to our regret, there have been other incidents of terrible violence with children, many times worse. Say, that story about the girl from Netanya, or in Rishon where the mother drowned the little girl. In the period after the murder, people from the outside would ask me what had happened, who the murderer was, whether I knew anything that hadn't been published - now this doesn't exist. It's already gone into the chronicles of crime. Time has done its job."

About a week ago a girl of 19 from Katzrin said she was raped. On Monday, it was reported that a pedophile was caught here.

"Forget it, he's not a pedophile. I

t turns out that this is a mistake. My bureau chief looked into it, his parents phoned here and it's just some girl who exaggerated a story and they made a fuss about it in the newspaper. It's nothing. As for rape, look, there was also a rape in Rishon Lezion this week - to our regret, this happens."

At the end of our visit, we decided to visit the new Visitors Center on the outskirts of Katzrin, established by entrepreneur Haim Ohayon.

The attractions include a reality film center, where you are sprayed with water and smells are released into the air during an apolitical promotional film for the Golan, along with the three-dimensional model of the Golan. You'll also find an olive press and Ohayan's high-quality beer brewery, which on the basis of the fine waters of the Golan is aspiring to become the third-largest beer producer in Israel.

From here we will go up to view the surge in building, centering around the neighborhood that Ohayon is putting up and we will also hear about the center for genetics that Ohayon has already begun to promote. He was a fighter in the navy, comes from Moshav Kanaf and is prepared to give up the Golan, in return for "recognition of Israel for 200 years."

In the evening, just after sunset, Olga is hitch-hiking at the exit from the Visitors Center. She is going home from work. A woman in her 30s, very impressive looking, climbs into a strange vehicle with us, two strange men. Her Hebrew is excellent for someone who arrived in Israel from Russia three years ago. In Ekatrinaburg, she was a journalist. She lived in Ein Zivan in the Golan for two years and now lives in Katzrin. Never mind the details. No, she's not afraid. Here we are. Many thanks for the lift.