High in the Golan, tourism takes on a po­lit­i­cal edge

Kuwait Times - - WEEKENDER -

On top of a long-aban­doned build­ing, 50 young Arab Is­raelis lis­ten at­ten­tively to Emad Madah as smoke bil­lows into the sky in the dis­tance be­hind them. Madah is stand­ing in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied Golan Heights near the de­mar­ca­tion line with Syria, ex­plain­ing the fight­ing on the Syr­ian plains be­low. For his guests, this is their idea of fun. “Ev­ery time, I learn some­thing new about na­ture and live out the events of his­tory in my imag­i­na­tion,” says Roni Haloon, a 23-year-old stu­dent from the Arab Is­raeli vil­lage of Is­fiya who is on his sec­ond trip with Madah. Stun­ning beaches and re­sorts abound in the Mid­dle East for tourists seek­ing rest and re­lax­ation, but there are also other op­tions for the more cu­ri­ous in the po­lit­i­cally charged re­gion.

Tours en­com­pass­ing his­tory or pol­i­tics can also be ar­ranged-and that’s where guides like Madah come in. Madah gives un­usual tours of the pic­turesque Golan Heights, which Is­rael took from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, delv­ing into his­tory and cur­rent events sur­round­ing the dis­puted ter­ri­tory. Other ex­am­ples of such al­ter­na­tive tourism in­clude tours of the oc­cu­pied West Bank led by Is­raelis or Pales­tini­ans pro­vid­ing their ver­sions of the sit­u­a­tion there. Madah says his tours aim at “ed­u­ca­tion and en­ter­tain­ment” rather than profit, and seek to help peo­ple un­der­stand “the Syr­ian Golan be­fore and af­ter the (Is­raeli) oc­cu­pa­tion”.

A his­tory lesson

His trips also boost lo­cal busi­nesses as his guests visit restau­rants and buy goods from lo­cal farm­ers, in­clud­ing the cher­ries, ap­ples, peaches and pears that grow in the re­gion. Madah, who works in theatre and cul­ture, has been giv­ing al­ter­na­tive tours of the Golan for seven years-which leave from the coastal city of Haifa and run a full day from 8:00 am to 6:00 or 7:00 pm and cost about 100 shekels ($26). As part of them, he talks about how Is­rael seiz­ing the land af­fected the pop­u­la­tion.

On a re­cent tour, Madah dis­cusses the town of Quneitra just across the de­mar­ca­tion line. Is­rael cap­tured and largely de­stroyed the town in 1967. Syria then briefly re­cap­tured it in 1973, be­fore Is­rael re­took it and even­tu­ally with­drew in 1974. Nowa­days, the area around the town is held by Syr­ian rebels bat­tling against Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. A few kilo­me­ters away from the town, the Is­raeli army now al­lows visi­tors to tour the area’s for­mer Syr­ian mil­i­tary head­quar­ters, long since aban­doned. Many rooms in the three-floor build­ing bear traces of con­flict.

A sign out front is ded­i­cated to Eli Co­hen, an Is­raeli spy who rose to a key po­si­tion in Syria in the 1960s. He was hanged in 1965 af­ter be­ing dis­cov­ered, but Is­raeli of­fi­cials say the in­tel­li­gence he pro­vided was in­flu­en­tial in win­ning the 1967 war. Ruba Abu Ramheen, 20, a law stu­dent at Haifa Univer­sity, says she learns some­thing new each time she vis­its the Golan with Madah. “I en­joy the na­ture and pass on what I learn to my friends and fam­ily,” she says.

5 vil­lages re­main­ing

The tour also passes the stone-strewn Has­bani River. The river, which flows 40 kilo­me­ters (25 miles) into Le­banon, is a source of ten­sion be­tween Is­rael and its north­ern neigh­bor and al­most ig­nited a war in 2002, Madah ex­plains. At one point, the group’s bus passes a sign read­ing “be­ware of mines”. The Golan is com­posed of basalt vol­canic rock, with 250 vil­lages and around 150,000 peo­ple liv­ing there be­fore 1967, Madah ex­plains.

Many were de­stroyed, with just the five vil­lages of Buq’ata, Ein Qiniyye, Masada, Ma­j­dal Shams and Gha­jar re­main­ing. Prior to 1967, Chris­tians, Mus­lims, Druze and Cir­cas­sians lived there, but the ma­jor­ity left for Syr­ian-con­trolled ter­ri­tory dur­ing the war. An es­ti­mated 22,000 Druze now live in the Is­raeli­con­trolled Golan as well as some 25,000 Is­raelis. “There was a vil­lage here” called Jbat Al-Zeit, Madah says, on the way to his home­town of Ma­j­dal Shams. But it was de­stroyed and is now home to the Is­raeli set­tle­ment of Neve Ativ.

At the cen­ter of the town square in Ma­j­dal Shams stands a mon­u­ment to Sul­tan Pasha al-Atrash, who fought against French colo­nial­ism in Syria. Haloon, the 23-year-old stu­dent, says the tour has been eye-open­ing. “I never imag­ined that I would en­ter the mil­i­tary head­quar­ters and hos­pi­tal that were run by the Syr­ian army.”

A group of tourists visit a for­mer Syr­ian army post in Quneitra.

A group of tourists visit a for­mer Syr­ian army post in Quneitra, in the Is­raeli-an­nexed Golan Heights.

A group of tourists visit a for­mer Syr­ian army post in Quneitra.

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