Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Golan Heights

Photo: Daniel Case
The Golan Heights are both notorious and beautiful, a majestic sweep of green rising up from the lowlands around Lake Tiberius, a couple of hours’ drive north of Amman. Exploring the North of the country was Lars’ idea – he’d made the suggestion the night before at dinner.
   We stood in the ruins of the Roman City at Umm Qeis and looked out at the green swell of one of the world’s bloodiest and most hotly contested pieces of land, and I was humbled into silence. Anne was next to me, her jacket collar turned up and her hair whipping her face. It was a day of clear, cool sunshine. The clouds were starting to gather, drifting across the rich blue sky and casting jagged shadows across the ruins and the hump of the Golan beyond. I heard the shouts of the tamar man selling his date juice in the ruins behind me and turned to see him lugging the huge, brass pot on his back, bright ribbons and pompoms decorating it.
   Lars spoke to Anne, raising his voice against the breeze blowing across the black stone skeleton of the city Rome had left behind. The wind gusted through the centuries and across into Israel. ‘The Israelis took it from Syria in ’67,’ Lars shouted against the wind. ‘You could stand here at the time, apparently, and watch the MIGs dancing in the air as the land shook with the bombs. I know a guy who was here. He was crazy to have been close to it as like this. He said it looked beautiful, the explosions and smoke. The border’s down there, in the valley. The Syrians used to launching the rocket attacks from the heights down onto the Israelis. Gave them more range.’
Olives, Page 107

Standing at Umm Qeis always reminds me of being a kid again. It’s one of two places that does this to me. The other is flying in to Beirut.

I have vague memories of watching fighter jets on TV flying above the Golan, it must have been in 1973, the little silver/white shapes twisting and turning, popping out flares behind them. Even to this day, I can’t fly into Beirut without seeing those little shapes following my path down the corniche from the North before we glide out to sea then turn to land at Beirut International with Sassine looming majestically above us.

Looking out over the Golan now is a funny feeling. The valley below marks the Israeli border, the road snaking down through farmhouses clinging to the hillside.  The 1967 war alone displaced over 100,000 people from the Golan, mostly Druze and Circassian families. They were never to be allowed to return.

The 1967 war was, at least in part, triggered by Syrian attempts to divert the water flowing into Lake Tiberias (or the Sea of Galilee or Kinnaret or whatever you want to call it), with an interplay of efforts to block the water and block the blockers culminating in  a conflict which saw Syria lose Tiberias and the resources that feed it from the Golan.

The lake is also fed by a complex series of underground aquifers, a fact that fascinated me so much it cam to lie at the core of the conflict in Olives, with Daoud's scheme to tap the underground sources to provide water for Jordan and the West Bank at Israel's expense.

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