Fifty years have passed since the Golan Heights was seized from the Syrians, and 36 years since it was annexed and made officially part of Israel. But a visit there reveals that contrary to what one might think, there is still a wealth of testimony to Syria’s past presence.
The most significant evidence is actually underground; more than a million old and rusty mines, the overwhelming majority of them Syrian, are estimated to be buried on the Heights. At the current pace and budget, it will take another century to remove them all. As bizarre as it sounds, the mine fields have become part of the local experience; a few years ago I swam in a pool that had been dubbed “Ein Mokesh,” mokesh being Hebrew for mine. The narrow path that led to it ran between two mine fields, and something about the proximity to those explosives apparently draws numerous hikers there.
The Golan was not empty of Syrians when it was occupied, as is commonly thought. In an article published in Cathedra, a quarterly published by the Yad Ben Zvi Institute for Research on Eretz Israel, historian Dr. Yigal Kipnis, a resident of Ma’aleh Gamla on the Golan, outlined the map of communities on the Heights on the eve of the Six-Day War. His research showed that throughout the Heights (including the part retained by Syria), there were some 150,000 Syrians living in 273 communities there. Most of them, 70 percent, were Sunni Muslims.
A few months after the war, a census taken of the area Israel had occupied found only 6,396 residents in eight towns and villages, nearly all of them Druze. Kipnis thus estimates that some 120,000 residents fled the area during the war and never returned.
He says you can still find remnants of 220 small villages that either deteriorated naturally or were destroyed.
“They’re there. Most of the time they are simply piles of rocks. They are marked on maps as ruins and there’s no problem locating them,” says Kipnis, who added that most of the villages abandoned by the Golan Syrians in 1967 were poor, with structures built by ancient methods. “The ceiling was generally from mud, which requires constant maintenance or the building collapses.” There is no orderly policy for either preserving or destroying these ruins, he says, nor was there ever.
Another type of structure pointed out by Kipnis is harder to ignore. These are the concrete buildings that the Syrian regime built during the years it controlled the Golan, most of which served as schools, hospitals, military bases or water towers. There are 14 Syrian water towers still scattered on the Golan. In the past there had been plans to preserve them, or turn them into tourist attractions, but those plans never came to fruition.
There are also mosques that survived. Near Hushniya, on Route 87 in the eastern Golan, there is a large abandoned mosque, partially destroyed, whose minaret is still visible. The large, impressive building is now daubed with Hebrew and Arabic graffiti, and signs of gunfire are clearly visible. The 1,600 residents of Hushniya, which was a Circassian village, fled their homes in 1967. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973 the Syrians seized Hushniya temporarily and the military camp set up there later became the temporary home of the founders of Moshav Keshet.
Kipnis explains that many Israeli Golan communities were started by moving into Syrian structures, with the residents’ permanent homes built later on. The Israeli army oten did the same, using Syrian bases in Quneitra and Nafah until new bases were built.
During the interview, Kipnis stressed a few times that examining the Syrian history of the Golan is not necessarily a political statement. It was important, he said, to be familiar with the area’s past history, irrespective of one’s political opinions.
Current population data on the Golan Heights shows that some 46,000 people – 21,000 Jews and 25,000 non-Jews – now live there. Thirty-two Jewish communities are scattered across the Golan.
Yisrael Eshed, who lives in Eli-Ad in the southern Golan, was previously tourism director on the Golan for the local council, and the initiator of the Golan Trail. He now is an independent tourism consultant. The decision to erase the ruins of the Syrian presence in some places in the Golan, for reasons that aren’t clear, saddens him. An example close to where he lives is the Syrian village of El-Al, on the banks of the El-Al stream and what is known as Wadi Dafila.
“It was a lovely village, with many remnants of Jewish culture alongside amazing springs,” Eshed recalls. “One day during the 1980s, they came and razed the village. Then and now, I think this was crazy, but I don’t think that this was a consistent policy.”
When I ask him to point out a Syrian “legacy,” he immediately cites the military positions. These fortified cement structures that the Syrians erected, primarily overlooking the communities of the Jordan Valley, remain a dominant presence in the western Golan. They are strong structures that won’t submit to the forces of nature and the question of what to do with them has been debated for years. The fact that most of these positions were deliberately built with an excellent view of the area below makes it tempting to turn them into sites combining tourism and commemoration. Obviously they have historical value because they help explain the threat the Syrian army posed to the Jordan Valley.
Source of Syrian fire
Eshed points out some of the positions that have been turned into tourist lookout points. The El Murtafa position, north of Route 91, has become the Gadot lookout point. From here most of the Syrians’ fire was aimed at Kibbutz Gadot. In the middle of the site, among the fortified buildings and the tunnels connecting the Syrian bunkers, there is now a large triangular-shaped memorial to members of the Golan-Alexandroni Brigade who fell at the site. The example that Eshed cites as the most prominent position turned into a tourism-memorial site is Tel Fahr, now called Mitzpe Golani. That position in the northern Golan Heights overlooks the Hula Valley, and it was there that one of the Six-Day War’s toughest battles took place.
Developer Leo Glazer is establishing a hotel in an ancient structure at the Upper Customs House junction. He came to the Golan 12 years ago when regional council head Eli Malka was looking for businessmen to invest in the region.
“I saw the old Customs House and I loved it,” he said. His efforts to get the permits to open a hotel in the Bauhaus-style building, erected by the French in the 1920s, took years, but by the end of this year he hopes the 27-room hotel will open, complete with restaurant and spa.
Two other Syrian legacy buildings on the Golan are Emir Faour Palace, a summer house built by the Emir Mahmoud al-Faour in the early 20th century that was abandoned in 1967, and the Syrian command center at Quneitra, near Merom Golan. The latter building was constructed by the Soviets in the 1960s as a hospital but was later turned into command headquarters. In the building there’s a memorial plaque noting that Israeli spy Eli Cohen had visited there several times. The site is in relatively good shape and there are plans to develop it.
‘Syrian officers’ pools’
One of the great pleasures of visiting the Golan is dipping one’s feet in what are known as the officers’ pools. It remains in dispute whether these were really set up as a kind of country club for Syrian officers. But the name stuck, and now there are several pools referred to as such throughout the Heights. The most famous is Ein Almin, near Route 888, south of the Customs House junction.
Dolan Abu Salah, the 39-year-old head of the Majdal Shams local council, laughs when I ask him what remains in his town from the Syrian era. “The Syrians only left memories here. I’m young, but there are older people who remember. We don’t deal with that anymore. We are part of Israel and the residents here feel that our fate is totally linked to Israel’s fate.”
He said his sense was that the state, mainly the Tourism Ministry, was investing in the area like never before. “We’ve learned to demand what’s coming to us in development budgets. Well-being is the key to a feeling of belonging and now there is real well-being. A month ago a new pedestrian mall opened in Majdal Shams. It feels like a quality place in the mountains of Europe.
“Here’s another statistic,” he says. “When I assumed my post, 47 percent of 12th graders earned a matriculation certificate. Now we’re at 81 percent. The national average is 55 percent. That says everything. Tell people to come see for themselves.”