Golan Heights: Visit to a Disputed Land

Monday, July 25, 2005 | Al Qunaytirah, Syria

With the exception of the Golan Hospital, "destructed by Zionists", the Syrians mostly let Quneitra speak for itself.
Yesterday morning the Language Center organized a trip for a dozen of us in the Summer Program to visit the Golan Heights (مرتفعات الجولان), the much-disputed region at the crossroads of Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.

The Golan had long been recognized as part of Syria in 1967, when Israel attacked and captured most of the region in the Six-Day War of that year. The narrow strip that Israel failed to capture, as well as a smaller segment that they later gave back to Syria, have today mostly been repopulated by those who fled during the fighting.

However, the Syrian government has maintained the town of Quneitra (القنيطرة), once the region's most prominent city, in its state of semi-destruction as a testament and a reminder of Israel's attacks. Outside Quneitra, the Syrians have established a visitor's center, where they are more than
happy to explain the conflict to curious foreigners.

After registering our passport numbers with the police several days in advance and passing through a series of checkpoints on the highway from Damascus, we reached the visitor's center yesterday morning. There, a guide gave us a presentation in Arabic and English, using a small-scale model of the heights to show us the geography of the conflict. Honestly, I found the presentation kind of lame. It was, of course, a propaganda speech, but not even a very strong one, as if the Syrians were afraid to offend us. Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing some shouting and screaming about the infidel Zionists and Americans or something, but they kept the presentation surprisingly subdued.

Perhaps the idea was to let the city of Quneitra speak for itself. We were soon back on the bus, driving through the city's deserted streets, getting out here and there to poke around the ruins. First we wandered through the gutted, shelled out husk of a former hospital, then an Orthodox church. All around these, buildings lay in half-destroyed heaps of rubble. Just before they withdrew from Quneitra, our guide explained, the Israelis had removed all the doors, windows, and hardware from the structures, down to the last screw. Burnt, mangled artillery was visible on some of the hillsides. Besides us, only soldiers were present, patrolling the ghost town's cratered streets.

After this part of our tour, we continued west in our mini tour bus toward the ceasefire border between Syria and Israel. As we approached the border, increasingly high barriers of coiled razorwire lined the roadside. The bus stopped at the Syrian border post. Past the barrier, a hundred meters of road stretched out toward another, more heavily fortified post with an Israeli flag atop it. Signs warning of land mines were strung at intervals along the barbed wire, in what would have otherwise been a beautiful valley. Even in July, a few patches of snow still dotted the tops of the nearby peaks.

Our visit to Quneitra finished, we spent the afternoon driving back along the scenic route, northward through the little villages—some Muslim, some Druze, some Circassian—of the Syrian Golan.

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