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Golan, a Patchwork of Steel and Soil

A destroyed tank in the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, with Syrian hills in the background. All photos by P.J. Tobia/PBS NewsHour.

When people in the United States think of the Golan Heights, they very likely focus on the bloody Six-Day War, the even bloodier Yom Kippur war, or maybe lately, the recent accidental shelling of the heights by Syrian government forces (which the Israelis responded to by very purposefully taking out a Syrian artillery position).

But for many Israelis, Golan summons images of cozy bed and breakfasts, wineries that wouldn’t look out of place in California’s Sonoma County and herds of cattle that roam the hills and roads of the Golan, supplying the area’s steakhouses.

Map showing where the NewsHour team is reporting. Click for larger version.

The NewsHour team wanted to bring you a taste of this bucolic, serene side of the Golan, as we reported on how Israel is dealing with increasing instability in next-door Syria and what defensive measures the small nation is taking if Damascus, only about 40 miles from the Golan border, falls into rebel hands.

We thought a good place to start would be one of those local wineries. Our local fixer — an accomplished journalist in his own right, who’s worked for major U.S. newspapers — had arranged the interview, telling the folks at the winery that we were doing a story on how the Golan Heights fit into the framework of the larger geopolitical situation. He told them that part of our story was about how the people who call the Golan home make a life and a living for themselves, day in and day out, and the winery offered a colorful example.

When we got there, we began chatting with some of the people who work at the winery. A manager asked NewsHour senior correspondent Margaret Warner what, specifically, was our larger story about. Warner told her that we wanted to explore whether the Israelis who have made homes and businesses near the border felt at all under threat with an increasingly unstable Syria just a few miles away.

“What sort of threat?” the manager pressed.

Margaret Warner stands in front of Israel’s newly fortified fence in Golan Heights near Syria.

Warner laid out the possibilities that Israeli officials have told us they see as potential threats to Israel, from refugees to jihadists possibly operating just a few valleys away from where we all stood, chatting pleasantly.

At that moment, the temperature in the room seemed to drop about 10 degrees and the manager said that she had to make a phone call. Minutes later (after a flurry of calls from the manager to their top public relations executive) we were told that we wouldn’t be able to film any part of the winery, even the logo on the bottles. They didn’t want to be a part of anything that portrayed Golan as anything other than a honeymooner’s delight. They also confided that they were concerned about the possibility, no matter how remote, of a boycott by people unhappy with anything they said.

They were extremely gracious about it, and even took the time to introduce us to an apple farmer whose orchards run right up against the massive new fence between Israel in Syria. You’ll see him in our piece, which broadcasts tonight.

But the reticence of the vintners underscores the complexity of living in a place like the Golan Heights.

The Golan was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Syrian army overran the heights, only to cede even more of the territory during an Israeli counter-attack. Those final battle lines have held ever since and the land has essentially become a part of Israel, though it is not officially recognized by other nations as such. The U.N. Security Council even passed a resolution in 1967 calling for Israel to withdraw from the Golan.

In the intervening years, tens of thousands of Israelis have settled in the area, alongside about 20,000 Syrian Druse who, unlike most Druse, never left the area after Israel captured it.

The idea of Israel ceding the Golan Heights to Syria has been a part of many negotiations between Israelis and their neighbors. Four Israeli Prime Ministers (Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barack,Shimon Peres and most recently Benjamin Netanyahu) have offered to cede at least part of the territory as part of any peace deal. And yet the Israeli public is dead-set against the idea.

The Golan are a major strategic advantage, and whoever holds them has a clear shot at much of Israel’s water supply, to say nothing of the highest ground in the country.

The orchards and fruit groves of the Golan offer a vivid example of the contradictions inherent in building a life, and a productive economy, along an internationally disputed border between two antagonistic neighbors. In these orchards, long rows of apple, orange and lemon trees are interspersed with massive ditches, deep and wide enough to trap a tank, which may be exactly what they were designed to do.

Public roads that divide many of the fields have built-in hairpin turns with massive rock piles on either side. The piles are stuffed with explosives, wired to detonate remotely and block the roads with boulders and debris. Then there are the mine fields, cordoned off with barbed wire, dotting the landscape in a deadly patchwork of anti-personnel devices.

The tallest hills in the area are topped with listening posts. There’s a saying in Golan that from the tallest of these posts you can read the daily paper in Damascus.

Trench left over from Israel’s wars with Syria, near the town of Alonei Habashan, Golan Heights, Israel.

Then there are the relics from past wars that could still be put to deadly use at a few hours notice. Pill boxes and cement trench-works, built into the fertile hillsides during the last two wars with Syria, stand sentinel. Area residents say that training exercises still occasionally take place in them.

These defenses are cheek-by-jowl with massive windmills, part of a wind-farming initiative that’s been underway in the Golan for years.

In short, the lovely Golan countryside, which produces large amounts of fruit and vegetables for domestic consumption and export, is a combination of strategic defense and productive farmland, sewn together like an odd quilt composed of loamy black soil and battle-hard steel.

It’s worth noting that the border has been mostly quiet since 1974, but Israeli government officials are increasingly concerned about spillover from the Syrian conflict.

While Warner taped an interview with a Golan resident, atop a hill that looked across the border and down into Syria, we could hear shells and machine-gun fire echoing from inside Syria.

As she reports in her story, the Israelis have strengthened the fence in places, adding high, fortified sentinel posts and thicker fencing material.

You wouldn’t even notice many of these defenses if you were up in the Golan for a weekend of wine tasting and romance or sailing on the nearby Sea of Galilee.

That’s just the way that many Israelis who live there, especially those who depend on the tourist trade, want to keep it.

We’ll have a full report from the Golan Heights on Monday’s NewsHour. View more of our Israel, West Bank and Gaza reporting and follow us on Twitter:

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