If Day One was head up north and get settled, with some sight-seeing thrown in, Day Two was the real thing, meeting some out-of-the-box people and going to a few not-your-typical-tourist-spots. It began on the kibbutz itself in an abandoned, graffiti-scrawled building. I doubt if it’s common knowledge that prior to the liberation of the Golan in 1967, the entire area was pretty much civilian-less, except for the Druze population. All of the Golan Heights was essentially a Syrian military base. There on Kibbutz Afik is what remains of an officers’ club, commanding a spectacular view of the area. I suspect that few of the visitors to the kibbutz get to see this old structure or get an explanation of what it was. But that’s why one goes on an A.A.C.I. tiyul.
From there, we got a tantalizing glimpse of two sections of the Eli Cohen trail, which in its entirety is a series of eight commemorative statues in the Golan, all of them created by Yuval Lopan. Each of the sites selected was a place that Eli Cohen visited in his guise as a Syrian Intelligence Officer while spying for Israel. As you may know, he was caught, arrested, and hanged for his efforts.
Our next stop, the Tel Saki battle site, is all about the collective efforts of hundreds of Israeli fighters during the Yom Kippur War (1973). The young man doing the explaining was Yaakov Selavan, with his own remarkable story. The son of American ex-pats living in Jerusalem’s Old City, he began his military career as a tank driver in the IDF. He then was put in charge of three tanks and ultimately became a commander in charge of one hundred tanks. He recently retired from active service but still has some role to play in military affairs. These days, he is more of a motivational speaker, explaining to groups small and large what happened at this little outpost forty-six years ago.
I cannot imagine what it was like to have been in the Land in those months leading up to Yom Kippur, especially after the euphoria six years earlier. People, I understand, were plain scared that war would break out and the country might not survive, and yet the military (or at least the government) was unprepared for what was to come. There was only a small detachment of troops at Tel Saki when the Syrian tanks rumbled down, intent on retaking the Golan on their way to Jerusalem. The Israeli forces more than held their own until they found themselves running out of food, water, and ammunition, whereupon they were overrun by the Syrians. The twenty some odd survivors (who took with them the bodies of three of their fellow soldiers) sought refuge in a relatively small bunker, awaiting what the assumed would be The End.
An hour or two before, the thirty-nine of us on the tiyul were standing quite comfortably in what had been the quarters for Syrian officers. Now we were listening intently to the story while standing huddled together in that same small bunker into which the Israeli soldiers had retreated. Claustrophobia, anyone?
The men did survive. Their staunch resistance meant that the Syrian armored divisions were well behind their schedule, heading down to Jerusalem. They had no time to waste dealing with two dozen enemy soldiers in a bunker. Meanwhile, Israeli reinforcements had begun to arrive. The first, Israeli aircraft, were shot down by artillery fire. However, the IDF tanks were coming, rumbling up the Golan from points south. The Syrians never got to Jerusalem; they never got beyond the Golan; they were soon in full retreat, never to return. The Israeli tanks were halfway to Damascus before they were ordered back by the powers-that-were.
No doubt, you realize that our narrator was too young to have been a participant in these events. His knowledge comes from his on-going involvement with the veterans of this campaign. The memorial plaque at the site, with the names and photographs of the soldiers and airmen who were killed in battle, as well as the enormous Israeli flag next to it didn’t just appear out of nowhere. A few years ago, a small contingent of veterans from the campaign gathered at the site on Yom Hazikaron for a memorial. The following year, a lot more showed up. Last year, it was several hundred. I guess the word must have gotten out: if we don’t remember, no one else will.
We had not gone to Tel Saki only to hear about past heroics of the IDF. Our issues with Syria have not gone away, and the IDF and its Intelligence needs to be on top of things. If one asks Yaakov what’s going on today, he will give a concise, one-word answer, “Chaos.” Anyone paying even marginal attention to events in the region would realize that the situation in Syria can be described as ‘fluid,’ to use a nice turn of phrase. Yaakov had a series of maps showing which group or forces – the Syrian loyalists, the rebel forces, ISIS, Hezbola, the Kurds – controlled which region in that country at a certain time. For several years, there was no effective authority over the territory bordering Israel. That’s when Operation Good Neighbor (or some such title) was in effect, when large numbers of Syrian soldiers and civilians came over the border and were treated in Israeli hospitals. Besides being ‘the right thing to do,’ our life-saving activities served to mollify the civilians in the area, making them much less willing to join in the on-going hostility with Israel. At the present time, the Syrian ‘government’ – for better or worse – controls most of Syria, including the area at the border. And, we’ll be watching you……Big Time. 24/7. With latest and best Intelligence-gathering equipment. If you need or want to know what brand of toothpaste a certain high-ranking Syrian official used last Thurs., someone in the IDF can probably tell you.
Our next stop was billed as a ‘Druze Experience,’ at which time we were to meet Naseeba, a woman described as ‘breaking through the glass ceiling,’ and ‘a game changer in the Druze community.’ What amazing things has she done? For one, she was the first woman to drive a car in the conservative village of Buq’ata. She was put in the Druze equivalent of herem, until the ones-in-charge realized that she had, by her own efforts, paid off the sizable debts her husband had accumulated from his construction business. Whereupon, they decided to take her a little more seriously; nowadays, it’s common for young females to get behind the wheel and motor off. Teachers in the local schools point to our heroine as an example of what their students can accomplish.
Naseeba told us about herself and a little about the rather secretive Druze religion over lunch in her restaurant. (Just so you know: she has an arrangement with a rabbi from Kiryat Shmona to kasher her kitchen on an as-needed basis. You want to see her certificate? It’s on her phone.) The food? Let’s just say her Druze cuisine beats what they were serving at Afik hands down. No peas and carrots anywhere in sight.
Time out for a short digression:
(The Druze in Israel are one people divided by a common apprehension. Certain officials in the pre-State Jewish Agency made it a point to establish good relations with the Druze in the Western Galil. So that when the Partition Plan was created in 1948, the Druze did not join in the Arab uprising. After the State was established, these Druze were accorded full citizen rights and have functioned accordingly ‘til this day and will continue to do so forever after. Whereas the Druze in the Golan did not come under Israeli sovereignty until 1967. To this day, if you asked a teenage girl in one of the Druze villages in that part of the world what her status is, she would probably reply that she is a Syrian Druze living under Israeli occupation. Does that mean she wants Assad’s forces to swoop down and recapture her village? Not likely. But…….. she may have relatives on the other side of the border, and/or she may have been made to understand that some future Israeli Idiot-in-charge may offer to swap her village as part of some ‘peace treaty.’ Therefore, she and most of the Druze in her village are hedging their bets. They maintain permanent resident status, akin to having an American Green Card. They work, they pay taxes, they get medical care, they go to school. They just don’t vote or serve in the army.)
We now return you to our regularly scheduled article.
To be fair, there was none of that offensive combination (peas and carrots, that is) that evening at Afik; we raised their rating from a D to a C-. Plus, we were making progress figuring out how to take the winding road back to our cabin in the dark without getting lost along the way. By the time we’re ready to leave…….