Saturday in Israel is a big deal, since it is the Sabbath and all. And at the Hotel where I was staying, the Dan Pearl, it was special indeed. The Dan Pearl had unique Sabbath guest services, where guests could go about their day, doing nothing that resembled work, as Judaic law forbids during the Sabbath; from sunset on Friday, to sunset on Saturday. Even the elevators worked on their own, since pressing a button to choose a floor, or to close a door is considered to be work, and is not permitted.
In the lower level of the Hotel, where the grand ballroom is set up, there is a small sanctuary where the men go to pray, set aside from the main room. And in the grand ballroom itself, there was buffet feast set up that was nearly beyond description. You can only imagine how well I ate. And without attending Sabbath services, it almost felt as though I was cheating. But; I can learn how to live with the guilt.
Tommy was at the Hotel by 8:30, ready for the drive to the furthest Northern point of Israel, where the Hizbollah routinely shell Israeli settlements and towns from the Lebanese hills near the Shebba Farms area with Katyusha rockets. However; before heading out to the Shebba Farm area, we first went off to the Golan Heights.
As we drove towards the Golan, we came across several Israeli checkpoints manned by soldiers, who had very little resemblance to the “kiddy army” of the 18 year old draftees. These guys were Border Patrol. Just to look at them and at their demeanor said everything you might want to know about their dedication to task, and toughness.
Remarkably, in most cases, we were just waved through. Yet; the news media, which traveled mostly in SUV’s with huge black letters that read TV scrawled all over them, were detained. And not just for a moment or so. They were detained for long periods of time without the soldiers even approaching them after they directed the drivers to pull over to the side of the barricades. I spoke with a couple of Border Patrol soldiers at a different venue that evening at Ben Yehuda Street, and asked them why the rude treatment to the media. And their answer was quick, succinct and angry.
“The media can’t wait to rush to a battle scene to show how bad we Israelis are. And when they show their reports, they show just one side. And when Jews get blown up, the media are there like vultures, showing the death and destruction, as if it was for entertainment. So let them wait. We don’t want them here if their only purpose is to make us look bad”.
I don’t think members of the UN in their marked vehicles fared much better.
As we drove to the North and the Golan Heights, the topography and weather changed significantly. We were constantly climbing, and as we did, the temperature became cooler, and the vegetation more lush and green. We even stopped so I could take some pictures of bales of what first appeared to be hay, but upon closer inspection was either wheat or oat straw.
There were also very fertile fields which grew a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. Being this far North and West, which, by Canadian standards wasn’t really all that far, radically changed the country; so much so, that it was almost not recognizable from the topography and climate just 15 to 30 minutes away.
During the drive, we traveled through various Arab villages, which were like all the other Arab villages I had seen. They were not very clean, with poorly maintained buildings, and quite a few unfinished concrete structures without windows, where people actually lived. What was also quite obvious, was the lack of activity.
When we came across a relatively large Israeli town, the name of which eludes me, it was like so many of the other Israeli communities we visited. This one was almost indiscernible from what a small town would look like in a prosperous agricultural part of Florida. I asked Tommy to drive around the town, opposed to just passing through. I was fascinated with its Western appearance. The town had beautifully manicured lawns, a community center and various shops on the main drive. It was almost as if I was in the USA, and not 6,000 miles away in the Middle East.
Our drive also brought us to a Druze village. Here I thought, things would be different, since many Druze are quite supportive of Israel, and even choose to serve in the Israeli military; with distinction no less. But there was no difference. This town was also quite disheveled.
What bothered Tommy about being in this town were two things: a Hizbollah flag, and Hizbollah graffiti. None of which was there the last time he drove through. Tommy wasted no time in leaving.
When we finally reached the Golan, it was magnificent. The air was actually cool. Wherever we looked, the panorama was expansive and as green as one could imagine. There were farms and open spaces everywhere, especially apple orchards. There were also bombed and shot-out concrete structures dotting the countryside. The remnants of several Syrian and Israeli wars.
In addition to the lush Golan fields, there were quite a few fat cows happily munching on the greenery. Many of which, which were not grazing, took up residence chewing their cud in the destroyed concrete buildings. I shot two rolls of photos during this trip, mostly of the things I found to be quite unique. The cows in the buildings were quite unique.
Out of nowhere, while heading along the Golan towards the Shebba Farms area, we came across what appeared to be a Bedouin roadside canteen, where two older wizened men were cooking various things on open fires, which more or less resembled Bar B Q’s burning wood and roots. We stopped to have a look.
As it turned out, one of the two men was selling spices of sorts, and some kind of prepared root to be smoked in water pipes, while the other was selling fresh roasted popcorn, strong coffee, and a sweet minted green tea. I opted for the tea, served in a not too clean, doubled-up styrofoam cup. Nonetheless; the tea was sensational. Like nothing I had ever before tasted.
As Tommy and I looked across the vista and discussed the orchards, we also talked about this enormous Israeli early warning station set upon the very top of what appeared to be an unassailable mountain, not far from where we stood. And as I continued to stare at the installation, Tommy walked aside and spoke with the vendor who sold us the coffee and tea.
As it turned out, the old man with skin like tanned leather was actually an Israeli Jew, who sort of who partnered up with the other old man who was a Palestinian Arab. The Israeli explained that he was a retired colonel of the Israeli military, who just couldn’t spend the rest of his life sitting on his ass waiting to die. So, here he was, standing on the side of the road with his Arab buddy, selling hot drinks and popcorn to the tourists. Both his sons he told us, were Apache helicopter gun-ship pilots.
As an aside: The two old men both spoke passable English, and were proud and pleased to do so.
From the roadside stand, we made our way to the furthest Northern point of Israel, where Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. This is the “disputed” area which Lebanon claims as its own. However; according to the UN and Israel, this hillside belongs to Syria. Nonetheless; Lebanon wants it, and the Syrians say that it is not theirs. While all of this is going on, the Syrian backed Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla fighters use the heights, from which to launch Katyusha rockets into Israel.
This was the most defended, and most militarily active place we had yet come upon. As we drove along, we traveled alongside a very substantial double fenced security wall, constructed out of mesh and razor wire, which appeared to be electrified and equipped with and array of sensors. Between the two fences was a dirt road, just wide enough for an armored vehicle. And on the Israeli side of the fence, there was a road which appeared to be heavily traveled. And from the appearance of the tracks on the road, it was obvious that the traffic included heavy mechanized equipment; like tanks.
We innocently managed to by-pass the Israeli checkpoint, and drove to the top of a considerable hill; that on one side overlooked the hills of Lebanon, Syria and the Shebba Farms. And Israel on the other side. Atop this hill was yet another Arab town. However; this town was very different from the others I saw. It was clean. Not only that, the buildings were also well maintained, and there was no clutter. I asked Tommy why, and he gave me a one word answer: “Christians”. All the other towns were Moslem. This was the first Christian town we came to.
I asked Tommy if this is one of the towns that would be returned to the Arabs if there was ever a peace deal brokered between the Arabs and Israel. It would not.
After the 6 day war in 1967, the Syrians wanted nothing whatsoever to do with maintaining this village. Neither did the Lebanese. It is sort of in the middle of nowhere, literally close to nothing. So, to the Lebanese and Syrians, there was nothing in it for either of them to invest the time, effort and money in supporting this town’s infrastructure. And in a move that could only happen in the Middle East, the villagers turned to the Israelis to see if they would take them in. The answer was yes. So, here we were, in a Christian, Arab Israeli town, smack dab in the center of a hot war zone. What a trip!
While we stood at the edge of the Southern part of the town, overlooking Israel and the military barriers, I saw a rather large creek, perhaps big enough to be called a stream. But; certainly not big enough to be called a river. I asked Tommy where the water was coming from, and where it was headed; since creeks, streams and rivers on the whole, in the Middle East, were virtually non existent.
“This is one of the two “rivers” which feed the Jordan River. It comes from the mountains on the Syrian and Lebanese side”. Said Tommy.
“How big is the second river”?
“Actually, the second river is made up from a couple of rivers on the Arab side before it joins the Jordan. But it’s about the same size. And see how fast it’s flowing. Soon it will become a trickle”.
I stood there in disbelief. Here was the source of the “mighty” Jordan River. Not much more than a flowing trickle in itself. I explained to Tommy, that the river which surrounds my property on two sides in Ontario where I live, is at least twice the size of the river we were looking at. And even though the Ontario government defines it (the Delisle) as a river; to my mind’s eye, it really is only a pretty wide stream. I don’t think Tommy believed me.
I wanted to take some photos of the other side of town, where Lebanon and Syria meet. So, we got back into the car for the very short drive. I call it a town, and at the same time I call it a village, since I am not certain what it is. By our standards in North America, this place would be a village. By middle Eastern standards, it seems that it could be either. So please forgive my dual description of this place and others.
At the Northern side of the village, we got out of the car, and started to look for the best shot to take, with my camera in hand, just as an Arab farmer drove up to us on his tractor. With a big smile, he spoke to Tommy in Arabic, while he glanced occasionally at me. And then he drove off not looking back.
“Get in the car”. Tommy said.
“Just get in the car, we’re leaving”.
“As soon as I take this photo”.
“Please get in the car now”.
I snapped a quick picture and got in the car. There was real concern on Tommy’s face. “What’s up”? Apparently, the farmer was terrified, that if the Israel Border Patrol at the base of the hill saw us hanging around taking pictures, they would come up and start searching homes. Or worse. And since we wandered into the village by accidently bypassing the check-point, Tommy was more concerned than somewhat.
At the base of the hill at the checkpoint, as we drove out, Tommy was put through a wringer by an extremely pissed-off soldier of the Border Patrol. He demanded all of Tommy’s papers and read the riot act to him in no uncertain terms. And after a few moments of a very tense situation, where Tommy was explaining that I was a Canadian tourist, and I wanted to know if this is the way Israelis treat their “only” tourist, the soldier gave Tommy his papers back, and away we went. Very quickly I might mention.
As we drove a couple of miles from the checkpoint, we came across an Israeli military installation that was armed to the teeth, and loaded for bear. There were huge Howitzer cannon, armored troop carriers and no shortage of Mercava tanks. This was indeed the real thing. It is expected, that if war is going to break out between Syria and Israel, this is where it is most likely going to happen. Talk about being where the action is.
We continued along our way until we came to a cute Israeli town; which was probably a village. But; like all the Israeli towns we had come upon, this one too, was very modern and looked somewhat like a village in the Laurentian or Catskill Mountains. There was a strip-center, and a McDonalds of all things. There was also this slightly bigger than average sized stream that ran right through it, which I was told, was the Jordan River. Here is where we decided to stop for lunch.
Instead of the McDonalds, we opted to eat at what was a unique Middle Eastern restaurant, owned, managed and operated by Israeli Arabs. At least it was unique to me. The service, ambiance, price and food were all fabulous. The restaurant had two components. There were two very large interior dining rooms, as modern as anything we would expect in North America. And there was outdoor terrace dining, under an open sky next to the flowing Jordan River where people also picnicked. The waiters all wore bleached white chef uniforms.
It appeared that all of the clients of the restaurant were Israeli Jews, who seemed to be regulars, given their familiarity with the Arab staff. But even at a wonderful oasis such as this, the reality of the Middle East was never far away. Sitting in the outside section was a nice “all American” looking family with younger children, all dressed up enjoying their meal. The father wore a handgun.
One of the thoughts that kept crossing my mind as I sat there with Tommy, was how much of a goldmine this restaurant would be in any big North American city. It would make a ton.
We soon came to Kyriat Shmona, a very large modern town engulfed in a green pine forest nestled between high rolling hills, which more resembled a Laurentian Mountain resort town like St Saveur, rather than anything I could describe in Israel. There was even a horse rental place just off the road.
Kyriat Shmona is not in the “disputed” areas, and is, according to even the UN, a legitimate part of Greater Israel. But; even with that, there is no let up of shelling from the Shebba Farms area of Syria/Lebanon. Yet, even with the legitimacy of the world body, the Arab world still finds it acceptable to launch Katyusha rockets into this Israeli town.
And when Israel responds militarily, it is the one that is criticized by the Arab world, the UN, and the Western Media for not showing restraint; or by responding in an “disproportionate” way.
The strongest criticism usually comes from Western Europe led by the French. I wonder how the French would respond if terrorists in Spain decided to launch rocket attacks against French villages on French soil, and Spain did nothing to stop them, or worse yet; it could be proven that Spain was the benefactor of the terrorists?
From what I saw in terms of Israeli military hardware, and preparedness, not that far from the Shebba Farms area, it wouldn’t take much, or long, for the Israeli Defense Forces to beat the crap out of the Hizbollah guerillas, and the Syrians as well. The fact that they don’t, is a testament to Israeli patience, and Israeli hopes for an peacefully negotiated solution.
From Kyriat Shmonah, we drove to the beautiful resort town of Tiberias, located on the shores of the Keneret (The Sea of Galilee). Like everywhere else, Tiberias was also empty of people; perhaps because it was the Sabbath. But I doubt it. I could easily imagine what this place would have been like during “normal” times. If you have ever been to Miami Beach, along the ocean strip, this is what Tiberias was like along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
As for the Sea of Galilee; it is seven miles wide at its widest point, and thirteen miles long from tip to tip, where at the end, it once again becomes the Jordan River, where it eventually empties into the Dead Sea.
This lake, which is so important to the region, provides as much as 95% of all of Israel’s fresh water supply, through an intricate network of pipes and conduits.
We retraced our route back to Jerusalem through the same checkpoints, this time, because we were coming into Israel, we were stopped and asked to produce ID. Security was tight, and the Border Patrol soldiers looked more alert and nervous than usual.
On our way back to Jerusalem, we turned on the car radio, and learned that four people were murdered in their homes by Arab terrorists at one of the settlements, including an infant girl who was shot dead while laying in her bed, while the men of the settlement were at Saturday morning prayers.
Tommy and I had passed not all that far of that settlement, not all that long from the time it had happened. This was a stark reminder to me, just in case I forgot, that there is an ever present danger in the land of Milk and Honey.
I went to Ben Yehuda Street for supper, where just about everything was still closed because of the Sabbath. And under normal circumstances, as I was told; as soon as the sun sets and the Sabbath is over, the shops and restaurants open, and the kids and adults arrive on mass to shop, eat and stroll. But on this night, after sunset, Ben Yehuda more or less stayed closed, except for a smattering of kids with skate boards and roller blades, a few strolling adults and soldiers who were visible everywhere. I went to bed a little depressed.
The next installment will be published shortly.