Israeli-occupied Golan Heights
The helmeted figure threw himself off the cliff at a dead run and soared out over the broad valley beneath his delta wing. Rafi Barak, a member of Kibbutz Kfar Horev, pointed past the hang glider to the kibbutzim around Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) below and spoke of the necessity of preventing Syrian guns from returnng to these heights.
It was an old argument, dating from the moment Israeli forces scaled the Golan Heights in the six-day Arab-Israeli war of 1967. But there was something new symbolized by the weekened wind-gliding, the cliff-edge pool with a spectacular view being built by the kibbutz, and by the vine-covered lushness of the kibbutz itself.
Still wearing his boots and blue work clothes after duty in the cow shed, Mr. Barak, an American Vietnam veteran, nodded at the flower beds, lawns, and neat houses and said, "We're going to be a country club someday." Thirteen years after the first settlement was hastily established on the Golan Heights, the Israeli presence no longer seems, to Israelis an act of defiance but of quiet and prosperous routine with enough resources to spare now for the amenities of life. In the Knesset (parliament), a group of members has begun pressing for a Golan bill that would formally annex the heights to Israel.
To the naked eye, the Golan Heights already seems as integral a part of Israel as a Tel Aviv suburb. When the Syrians almost drove the Israelis off the heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, there were nine settlements on it with 900 residents. Today, there are 26 settlements and 7,000 Israelis, 1,200 of them in the nucleus of a handsome new town, Katzrin, which will serve as the urban center of the region.
In addition, there are 11,000 indigenous Druze (members of a small religious sect that splintered from Islam) living in four villages. The government's master plan for the Golan Heights calls for an eventual population of 60,000, including 20,000 Druze.
The residents calmly accept the fact that they live on a front that could become active without warning. In 1973, the women and children were evacuated under artillery fire, some only hours before Syrian tanks reached their gates. Most of the men had been mobilized to other fronts.
Today, virtually all the men on the Golan are organized in a regional force that will join in the defense of the heights. Deep shelters covered by the dark basalt rock of the Golan lie close at hand wherever one turns. The automatic rifle propped in the corner of the living room is as familiar a sight as the broom in the kitchen.
A line of hills bristling with antennas and bunkers faces the Syrian lines, and Army camps are scattered throughout the heights. Within the shadow of these installations, the residents live seemingly cheerful and purposeful lives, finding time to organize sports teams, a lecture program, and adult education courses.
What the residents have not come to terms with is the notion that their living here might be the price of peace.
"The possibility of our being evacuated isn't something people speak much about, but we think about it," says Yehuda Harel, a former head of the Golan's regional council. "After the Camp David agreement and the decisiin to evacuate the Sinai settlements, there is uncertainty here."
As a member of the first and largest kibbutz on the heights, Merom Hagolan, Mr. Harel notes that the first group of children born there already are approaching their bar mitzvahs. "They don't feel they are living across any border," he says.
The kibbutz, begun as an improvised work camp, now is a prosperous settlement. As Mr. Harel spoke of the bleak beginnings of settlement on the Golan, his wife announced that she was driving with their daughter to the new shopping center in Katzrin for ice cream.
"I'm certain that someday the question will come -- does Israel want peace or the Golan settlements?" Mr. Harel says. "Just like the question came up in Sinai.
"Our answer? Only peace with settlements. There will be no real peace if one side is strong and the other weak. Today there is a balance. There won't be if the Syrians are back on the heights looking down on us."
The mayor of the nearby Druze village of Massada, Mohsen Abu Salah, does not want Israel to descend from the Golan, either. "Our economic situation has improved 800 percent since the Israelis came," Mayor Salah says.
"The Druze villages across the border in Syria are still in the same mud we wee all in before 1967. Nearly all the Druze on the Golan want Israel to stay. We want a clear statement from Israel that it intends to stay permanently."
In addition to economic well-being, Mr. Salah cites the democratic political system introduced by Israel and religious autonomy, something they did not enjoy under Syria. A knowledgeable Israeli said 10 to 20 percent of the Golan Druze would have to flee to Israel if the area returned to Syrian control.
Down at the foot of the Golan, in Kibbutz Neot Mordecai, a reserve general, Dan Lanier, one of the most forceful proponents of a permanent Israeli presence on the heights, said he had opposed the introduction of the Golan bill, as had most Golan residents. He said it could unnecessarily provoke the Syrians and the world in general.
If, however, the bill were to come to a vote in the Knesset, Mr. Lanier says, there would be no alternative but to vote for it, since a negative vote could be taken to mean that Israel did not intend to stay there.
The ideology that brought the initial settlers to the Golan the Syrian Army and Israel's heartland -- has been reinforced, perhaps even surpassed, by the sense of place and fresh beginnings the Golan has offered. The air is bracing, the view splendid, and the opportunity to build life from scratch enchanting.
The great bulk of Golan residents are young, and within a few years they have turned barren uplands into a rich agricultural region with orchards, cotton, and cattle.
"This is a young man's world," Ariel Sagie says, as he directs the picking of cotton at night at Kfar Horev. "It's a fantastic place for taking on responsibility."
This attachment has created a dilemma for members of Kibbutz Gishur, which is affiliated with the left-wing Mapam Party. Mapam has declared that its settlements on the Golan, three in all, "will not be an obstacle to peace." This means, it is assumed, that the kibbutzim will be evacuated if peace demands it.
"We have a problem with that," Motti Chen, one of the kibbutz leaders, admits. He noted that the kibbutz members had refused to accept an initial plan calling for modular buildings for their settlement.
"We refused to accept buildings that can be taken apart," Mr. Chen says. "We insisted on buildings with strong foundations."