The Golan Heights
The Golan Heights were lost to Israel in 1967 in the Six Day War. Syria tried to recuperate them in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but Israel proved to strong, and in an armistice agreement in 1974, they regained only a third of them. Since 1981, the Heights have been unilaterally annexed by Israel.
Quneitra was destroyed by the Israelis in 1973 as they withdrew from the town. It still lies in ruins today: either as a memorial, and reminder, to the events that passed there, or as anti-Israeli propaganda, depending on which side of the fence you stand.
I headed south-west of Damascus to visit it with some friends from the University. To go there, one requires a special permit from the Syrian Interior Ministry. We knew we’d arrived at the right building when we saw stood outside it, a guy in plain clothes, touting a machine-gun. Getting the permit is easy enough, requiring only a little patience as you stand outside the building whilst your passports are taken and god-knows-what happens inside. Whilst it may sound a little complicated, a trip to Quneitra is more of a macabre Disneyland, wrapped up in notional bureaucracy, than anything else.
The ride there in the servees bus skirts past some beautiful mountains, although these are now off-limits as they fall on the Israeli side of the border. Once we got to the “new” Quneitra, we switched from the micro-bus into a taxi, which would cross from “regular” Syria and into the UN-administered demilitarised zone.
The buildings that still stand in Quneitra are all pock-marked with bullet holes, but the majority were just collapsed rubble, either having been destroyed by demolition explosives, or bull-dozed. Apparently, anything that could be sold (windows, light-fittings, even screws) was removed before this systematic destruction & sold to Israeli contractors.
The UN still has a strong presence in the town, and at the edge of town lies the border with Israel. We could get right up to the border, which was overlooked by Israeli observation posts on the hills above, and it felt strange seeing the Israeli border checkpost, bearing the sign “Welcome to Israel”, in the distance; these two armies so close to each other. I can’t imagine the people crossing the 100m stretch between the two posts, the land flanking the road littered by landmines, feel particularly welcomed by either side.
I did feel that this visit was wrapped in a large cloak of Syrian propaganda, but at the same time, seeing the destruction here did make me feel quite angry and frustrated about Israel’s actions. This type of destruction continues today, and just seems like such a waste of resources in an area that is in desperate need of them.
The problem now in Golan is that the region is a major source of water for whichever side controls them, and so neither side will want to cede a centimetre in negotiating.