So beautiful . . . so strategic

One piece of the region’s jigsaw puzzle blossoms, its natives stateless but, with all, hoping for peace

By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 13, 2011

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GOLAN HEIGHTS — In this disputed land, secluded waterfalls are bound by minefields, flower-filled hills are etched by tank treads, and dairy farms border live-fire zones, close enough that the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapons accompanies the mooing of cows.

The dark soil, rich from ancient volcanic eruptions and millennia of cultivation, was a battleground for years between Syria and Israel, which seized the strategic highlands during the Six-Day War in 1967 and parried a Syrian effort to retake the area in 1973. The legacy of that conflict remains visible in the remnants of old tanks rusting on the hillsides and more modern arms at the ready nearly everywhere else.

Over the last three decades, however, this windswept territory of 500 square miles has been transformed into a breadbasket of Israel, giving rise to kumquat and apple groves, spicy cabernets and tangy olive oil, sweet milk chocolate and dainty pastries. There are now artist colonies and multimillion-dollar industries, hot springs and ski slopes, and settlers and soldiers who drink tea and eat falafel at shops owned by local Druze, the thousands of Muslims who live here and still identify as Syrian.

“This place is really heaven,’’ said Tzvi Raish, 31, who has spent the past four years working at the Golan Heights Winery, which is expanding. “Everything here moves at a better pace. It’s quiet and slow. It feels like the definition of peace.’’

I had long read about this small patch of earth from the comfortable distance of New England, where the equation to end the madness of the persisting conflict seemed so simple: Israel should trade much of the Golan Heights for a viable peace agreement with Syria, just as the Jewish state and Egypt did with the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel also occupied in 1967.

But the clarity of such a straightforward formula, a version of which nearly came to fruition during peace talks three years ago, began to dissolve after I spent a few days last month roaming from the serene waters of the Sea of Galilee in the south to the foothills of the snowcapped peaks of Mount Hermon in the north.

In my short time here, it became easier to appreciate how difficult it would be for Israel to cede the valuable high ground to its longtime enemy and how both sides could harbor such an intense attachment to the beauty and bounty of this stark land. About 40,000 people live here, almost evenly split between Jews and Druze.

Indeed, the prospect for a peace agreement anytime soon became even more doubtful in recent weeks as a wave of unrest swept through the Arab world, raising concerns here about the durability of Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Some have suggested that peace with Syria could bolster the previous agreements and muffle simmering tensions between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which borders the northern Golan. Yet many here who were dubious before, now feel that is even more unlikely.

Among those I met who long for the stability of peace but question whether such a pact with Syria is possible was Tamar Sorkin, 59, an artist who has lived here since 1983 in a barbed wire-surrounded settlement of 150 families.

Like many Israelis who have settled in the Golan, Sorkin first came when she served in the Army. “I loved it,’’ she said as she worked in the shop where she sells her colorful paintings. “I decided to stay because I thought it would be a great experience to build a new place.’’

She has trouble imagining leaving. “This is my home,’’ she said. “But I really want peace.’’

A few weeks later, with Egypt in crisis, Sorkin wrote me an e-mail expressing her deep doubts. “In this hectic region, where everything can change in a moment, it would be a sound policy, I think, to be very cautious,’’ she said. “Of course, I want peace now, but in this neighborhood of ours, to make peace you have to carry a big stick, and in the meantime live as normal a life as possible, making wine and olive oil and thinking about what gift to give my grandson for his birthday.’’

I came to the Golan after spending a few weeks traveling through Egypt and Jordan, where my fiancée, Jess, and I met a number of people who — despite the years of peace — still regarded Israel as their enemy. Still, others insisted that, even if the peace remained cold, it made sense and would endure in new regimes.

I wanted to know what the people here thought and how they co-existed even though their countries are still technically at war.

Our trip to Israel started in the southern city of Eilat, where we had arrived after walking across a demilitarized, no-man’s land from the adjacent Jordanian city of Aqaba. Unlike the border post in Jordan, the one in Eilat was adorned with images from the 1994 peace treaty signing in Washington, including one endearing photo of Jordan’s King Hussein lighting a cigarette for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

We took a five-hour bus ride from the beachside city in the Negev Desert to Haifa, the country’s largest city in the north. The next afternoon we rented a car and drove from the old port on the Mediterranean coast along a modern highway to the Galilee.

After a few hours in traffic, we arrived at night under a canopy of stars that mingled with the twinkling lights of Tiberias along the west coast in Israel proper and the settlements on the Golan’s rocky plateau to the east. We followed a winding road along the large lake, where Jesus was said to have walked on water, and climbed the steep hills of the Golan before coming to the gate of Givat Yoav, one of the territory’s first Israeli settlements founded shortly after the Six-Day War.

It’s a sleepy place of squat homes and dairy farms and we had come to stay in a yurt at a Mongolian-styled tent village built by Sara and Benzi Zafrir, both of whom have lived here for decades. After inviting us to their house for dinner, they talked about the history of the land and told us where to find ruins from the many civilizations that have ruled the region, including ancient Israelites, Romans, Assyrians, and Persians. We also discussed what the land meant to them after so many years here and whether they would ever agree to leave.

“I have two hats on this question,’’ Benzi Zafrir said. “I live here, and this is my home. I don’t want to leave. But I wear another hat. That hat is that I live in Israel, and if the government tells me we must go for peace, well, we will go.’’

As we drove from the hills in the south to the mountains in the north, stopping at wineries and chocolate makers and passing military vehicles and war memorials along the way, we met settlers and soldiers, recent immigrants and shopkeepers who talked about their mistrust of the Syrian regime and fears that a peace agreement would once again allow Syria to use the high ground to shell Israel. Others said they were satisfied with the status quo and noted that the Golan has been among Israel’s least violent borders since 1973, when Syria launched a surprise attack here on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

But we also met Druze who said that while they were comfortable here and had good relations with their Jewish neighbors, in the end, they wanted this land to revert to Syrian control, as it had been since Syria declared its independence in 1946, two years before Israel.

“I have complicated feelings and the future is a very hard question,’’ said Naeif Gorzallden, 45, who sells sweets in a village near Mount Hermon and has lived in the Golan all his life.

Like many Druze who live here, he speaks Hebrew and welcomes his Israeli customers, but he lacks a passport and wants to be reunited with his family across the border.

“This is a developed country and there is the rule of law here,’’ Gorzallden said. “But Syria is my culture. I think it would be easier if it was part of Syria.’’

Sahar Safadi, 27, who owns a nearby restaurant and also grew up in the Golan, believes he would earn a better living if the land remained part of Israel. But he, too, feels disconnected from his culture and explained the hardship of seeing his family.

“Because I don’t have Israeli citizenship, I don’t have a passport, and that makes me stateless,’’ he said. “That’s not right, and I have to say, this is Syrian land. But the only answer to solving any of these questions is peace.’’

He added: “More than anything, we all want peace.’’

David Abel can be reached at

If You Go

How to get there
El Al, British Airways, Delta, and other major airlines fly from Boston to Tel Aviv, which is about a two-hour drive from the Golan.
What to do
Genghis Khan
Moshav Givat Yoav
This Mongolian-styled campground in one of Israel’s first settlements in the Golan Heights offers five yurts each with room for 10 people. Air conditioners and heaters in the tents, full bathrooms, a kitchen, and picnic tables; $50-$75 per person per night.
Golan Heights Winery
12900 Katzrin
About a mile from the center of Katzrin, the largest town in the Golan, the winery offers a tour of its modern facilities, a video of its history, and wine tasting.
De Karina Mountain Chocolate
Kibbutz Ein Zivan
This chocolate maker on the road to Mount Hermon offers tours and plenty of samples of its rich chocolate, liqueur, and jam.