By Clemens Lambermont, a student of MA program in Peace and Conflict Management, 2016-2017 Cohort.
It’s no secret that Israel has a violent past with many wars fought since its declaration of independence in 1948. In your day to day life at the University however you will find little reminders of Israel’s violent past, a part maybe from the occasional professor who will tell you about the time he served in Syria or Lebanon. So to get a more visual example of how Israel is surrounded by its former and contemporary foes you will have to travel a bit further, as we did with our programs field trip to the Golan Heights.
In the early morning we set off to Israel’s Syrian border, passing the Sea of Galilee and pushing deep into the Golan Heights. It is a controversial area captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. It became annexed in 1981 but was never recognized internationally. Since then it became steadily cultivated by Israeli settlers however.
There has always been an uncertainty about the future of the region which is contested internationally. might be given back to Syria someday but those chances have dropped significantly since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. But there is less discussion of the issue recently due to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
The landscape high above sea-level, consisting mostly of inactive volcanoes, is simply astonishing. It feels a bit like Switzerland, but in the Middle-East. And the fields are not only very green but also scattered with partly destroyed bunkers and abandoned Soviet Era tanks.
At the UN post on Bental Hill we meet an Irish colonel overseeing the UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) mission in the Golan Heights. On his request he remains anonymous as he is also obligated to report to Damascus and doesn’t want to be accused of spying (this might seem ridiculous but it is a serious concern). His mission was established after the Yom-Kippur war in 1973 and their task is to keep an eye on Syrian- and Israeli’ military activities in the region, preventing the possibility of a sneak attack by one of the rival nations.
The colonel admits that the relevance of the UNDOF mission is up for debate almost half a century after it was established. The Syrian civil war brought a lot of considerable instability to the region and one of the main concerns is how to deal with the various armed groups operating close to Israel’s border. Some of them may want to stay neutral, while others pose a possible threat which may spark a new conflict with Israel. What also complicates the situation is the fact that UNDOF is part of a deal between Israel and Syria. Dealing with armed militias in the region is not in the missions job description. But although the geopolitical field has definitely changed over recent years, the mission is considered to be a modest success story and has been extended every half year up until today.
From the edge of Israel’s border with Syria we move to Metula. A town that is 270 degrees surrounded by the Lebanese border and has often been the front line in Israel’s wars against Hezbollah.
Today it seems quiet however, the streets almost desolate. But the outbreak of a new conflict is a possibility 24/7, all year long. The tension that comes with it is almost tangible and only stressed by the fact that our bus is suddenly followed by the towns security detail at request of the army. They want to know what a large group of people is doing so close to the border.
If you take a look over the fence you can see Hezbollah and Lebanese flags proudly waving on the other side. It’s a not so subtle reminder of the relationship between the two neighbouring countries. Their fear of each other is still omnipresent as our guide Oshrat Nagar, the towns public relations director, explains. Up on the hill on the other side you can see a quarry for example. Nothing special you would say, but ms. Nagar tells us that the citizens of the town fear that Hezbollah might be using the site to dig tunnels underneath the border.
We end our day at the abandoned ‘good fence‘ border crossing. It hasn’t been open in years and chances are slim that anyone will be allowed through it soon. It leaves you wondering what the opinions are on the other side of the border; whether they live under the same kind of stress, and if they’re watching us, as we are watching them now. Ms. Nagar admits that there are buses touring the Lebanese side of the fence as well. Sometimes they exchange some friendly waves, but other times it’s just insults and rocks flying towards the Israeli fence.
The peace is cold in these parts of the country, as we have now experienced ourselves. Whether the situation might loosen up again is a debate hardly ever discussed nowadays, so it seems that everyone is just managing the status quo. And with that in mind we return to Haifa, with the sun setting in front of us and the mountains of the Golan across Israel’s borders behind us.