Atop the Golan Heights - calm in the storm's eye
Israeli Observation Post 150, Golan Heights
The wind howls across the Damascus plain until it hits this Israeli outpost at the eastern edge of the Golan plateau. Here is a grandstand seat overlooking the red-dirt farmland of southern Syria.
''You look out there,'' says an Israeli junior officer as we stand atop a concrete and earth bunker, ''and see if there are cows in the field or old women at work. Even the most heartless commander would try to get the people out of the fields before attacking.''
If his formula for determining border tension is accurate, then there will be no trouble: late winter farm labor pokes along in Syria. On the Israeli side of the border, kibbutz tractors efficiently clip along.
Here on the Golan, an area the Israeli Army calls ''the eyes of Israel'' because of the visual and electronic snooping devices bristling from almost every sizable hilltop, one may be looking at the center of the storm of controversy over Israel's annexation of this 45-mile long, 15-mile wide plateau. But the eye of the storm is exceedingly calm.
Down the hillside and a mile across the flats is Quneitra, a once mid-size Syrian city, captured by Israel in 1967. Almost every house is demolished, though from Outpost-150, the city still seems filled with chalk-white houses. Last week, the Syrian government sponsored a demonstration protesting Israeli annexation of the Golan. Damascus claimed 250,000 Syrians participated. Israeli soldiers at OP-150 say the number was more like 2,500 and they were flown down in Syrian military transports.
The truth, as always in the Middle East, is somewhere in between. For the fact remains that the propaganda war over the Golan Heights is the only conflict going on today over this strategically important triangle wedged between Mount Hermon, Lake Tiberias, and the Jordanian border. A tour of the Golan late last week by this reporter showed:
* There is little abnormal Syrian-Israeli military tension.
* Internally, the Golan is quiet: a three-day general strike by pro-Syrian Druze inhabitants ended without incident last week.
* Opposition to the Israeli annexation is coming more from outside the region than within. Several Druze villagers indicated they are, if not happy, at least resigned to living under Israeli occupation.
True, the Israeli Army is beefing up its presence in the Golan. Late last week, one could watch a steady procession of semi tractor-trailers hauling shrouded tanks up the switchbacks from northern Galilee. Israeli tents and the usual idle, bored soldiers were grouped just off the major roads.
But United Nations sources say Israeli troop strength had been only 20 percent of what is allotted under the 1974 Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement. They believe Israel is bolstering its forces to 80 percent as a show of strength.
Out on the plain between Israeli and Syrian territory is UN Camp Ziouani, a logistics and supply headquarters for the Finns and Canadians of the UN Disengagement Observer Force. A Finnish officer says on neither side of the border has activity been alarming. As he talks, almost directly overhead, four Israeli jets streak towards Damascus, whining faintly and squirting out thin white contrails against the milky blue sky. Somewhere near the border, the jets wheel around hard and head back into Israel.
''This is standard. It happens every day,'' says the Finn.
Our next stop in the Golan at the foot of Mount Hermon is the Druze village of Massadeh. This and the village of Majdal Shams farther up Mount Hermon are the two largest Druze villages in the Golan. Massadeh was quiet last week and only half-heartedly did the 3,500 inhabitants participate in the general strike. In Majdal Shams the strike was more serious.
''That is because in Majdal Shams they are closer to Syria and they have family on the other side. So they are more afraid,'' an Israeli Army officer offers. ''There is no trouble in either village.''
Israeli soldiers mix easily with villagers on the hilly streets. A young Arab boy from the neighboring village of Raga says there is little in the way of resistance to the Golan annexation law. But like the classical marginal man, he refuses to commit himself to Syria or Israel.
For the moment, there is no reason for him to commit himself. No one expects Syria to attempt to take back the Heights. Similarly, it is unthinkable to most Israelis - and most diplomats who understand Israeli fears for security - to consider returning the Heights to Syria. The 12,500 Druze enjoy a considerably improved living standard today compared to when Syria controlled the territory .