the Golan Hights are divided between Syria and Israel, with a UN force trying to keep the two apart

The short history of the Golan Heights – and I am sure there are many different versions – is that Syria attacked Israel in 1967, using the Golan Heights as its launch pad. After which Israel hit back, invaded Syria instead, and occupied the Golan Heights. In 1973, during the following war, Syria recovered part of the Golan Heights, but was subsequently pushed back once again by Israeli forces. A cease fire line and a de-facto border was agreed in 1974, leaving 2/3rd of the Golan Heights Israel-controlled, and the eastern 1/3rd administered by Syria.

The disputed division of the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria

Administered? There is not much to administer, from what we see there are hardly any  villages, towns. Hardly any normal houses. Apparently it is very difficult to get a permit for visiting this zone. The military dominates here. As we have been instructed not to take pictures of anything military, under no circumstances, you have to make do with the description. In the hills man-made caves have been dug, well reinforced, which no doubt hide various types of artillery. Army positions are on the mountain ranges, but also all over the plateau. Lots of bunkers, largely made of the basalt blocks that litter the plains and finished with oil drums, painted in the Syrian colours. Often there are three or four of them together, at road junctions, which are invariably also covered by check points. And more check points, I don’t know how many we pass in just one day. We see military vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, the occasional piece of artillery, a machine gun position covering the road – a favourite place is on the viaducts over the main road. At one place a rough fort seems to have been built, basalt block walls with a low tower every 20-30 meters, or so. Man-made trenches, maybe to deter tanks, cross the countryside. Everything oozes military. Even the boots outside a hut are army boots.

the only military facility I can photograph, a UNDOF camp in the distance

In reality, the army is forced to stay at least 25 km away from the de-facto border, the zone in between being controlled by UNDOF, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.

In a smart move we pick up a military escort at one of the first check points. The man is not in uniform, his car is – to us – unrecognisable as army vehicle, yet at every next check point we pass without hassle; our escort is immediately recognised, lots of back slapping between our friend and the soldiers. Describe a check point: on major roads, like those around Damascus, these are broad arches across the road, from corrugated iron; and in the run up concrete slabs have been placed, to separate road lanes. Incredulously, sometimes there is a fast lane for VIPs, and the good news is that foreign tourists fall in that category. On busier roads quite long lines of cars are waiting to have the papers checked, and often the boot of the vehicle, too. On smaller, quieter roads the concrete slabs are put perpendicular to the road, to slow down traffic. On the side of the road is often a bunker, the ones made of rocks and oil drums filled with sand, with armed soldiers. Oh, and everything is in the Syrian colours, of course, red, white and black with green stars: the concrete slabs, the oil drums, the corrugated iron, you name it. Except that it has been there for a while, so is pretty faded by now.

patches of snow on distant mountains separating Syria and Lebanon

Another feature of the check points, and of the countryside in general, is the ever-present portrait of the president, Bashar al-Assad. Often also pretty faded.

the Golan Heights are mostly basalt-block covered plains, at first sight not very productive

Then to Golan Heights, and they are high, over 1000 m. Even in the sun it is a bit chilly, from the breeze. The land here seems pretty dry, initially not much vegetation. Yet, this appears to be the region in Syria that receives most rain, traces of which we see as patches of snow on some distant mountains, the Anti-Lebanon range, I think. In some places there is agriculture, olive trees, and cherries. Later in the season they have a lot more fruit, here, figs, apricots, even apples. Hard to imagine, in this environment, but the cherries are real, and they taste good!

local women active in the fields

there are actually people other than military in the Golan Heights, the ones producing the bulk of the fruits and vegetables for Syria

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