War and other things

Talk of war is everywhere here in Israel.  Front page articles proclaim the military is battling against Bibi and his desire to blow stuff up, Iranian stuff mostly.  Not to be left out, the lifestyles section of Haaretz got into the act yesterday publishing the important piece, Eat, pray, eat some more; How to stomach the impending war.  “With all the talk of warfare, we mustn’t ignore one of the most vital issues we may soon face: What to eat in bomb shelters?”  Important stuff, that. Perhaps this ever present threat of war explains why the beaches here are still full and no one seems much worried about getting skin cancer.   Israelis still honk impatiently in anticipation of the green, cafes are full, and there’s canned tuna on store shelves. Daily life continues without interruption.

Having spent yesterday in the Negev, today I was going north to the Golan and Galilee. The Golan and Galilee aren’t at all the same as the Negev and might as well be in an entirely different country.  These are the breadbasket of Israel and are rich with green fields, forested hills, and a gas station attendant who sat me down with a thick black cup of coffee while we waited for my car’s tank to fill.  I really don’t like coffee, but he was an incredibly friendly man and I couldn’t refuse his offer. Sipping the coffee slowly, and contorting my tongue to avoid the flavor, I couldn’t believe how much gas the car’s tank held.  I should have rented a hybrid.

Before setting out I thought back to just how quiet the Negev desert had been. I’ve never heard such utter silence before.  This wasn’t just the silence that says, listen, I can hear crickets.  It’s as the sort of silence that make you wonder what killed all the crickets. It’s the sort of silence you’d hear after asking if Tom Cruise is gay during Scientology cocktail party.  You see where I’m going with this. The desert is quiet. Early in the morning, when the air was still, without birds, insects, or kids asking for breakfast, I had stood there and listened to the sun rise over the Negev’s Martian landscape.  Pretty amazing actually. I hoped today went as well.

After a cold breakfast, Sabbath you see, I started Saturday morning at Hamat Gader, the ancient Roman spa complex built by members of the Roman 10th Legion and considered one of the finest Baths in the ancient world.  Perhaps there are two Hamat Gaders, and I found the other one.  Modern Hamat Gader abuts Jordon and is only accessible by driving along the heavily fortified border, strung with barbed wire, multilayered fences, and minefields.  Across a steep ravine I could see the Jordanian watch towers looking across at what until the 1960s was part of Syria.  I paid the ridiculously high entrance fee comforted by the knowledge that I was about to see the second biggest Roman bath complex in the world after all. I ignored the signs for the Middle East’s largest alligator farm and got my camera ready.  I should have come for the alligators.  What little of the bath complex has been excavated is furlong and off-limits behind a rusted chain-link fence.  No one comes to see the baths, it seems.  They come to see alligators. Nearby, heavily armed paratroopers patrolled within the modern spa complex, on the watch for any Islamic terrorists who had jumped the nearby border fence and come for a mud and sulfur treatment. I didn’t stay long.

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After the disappointment of Hamat Gadar I headed north along the Golan Height’s DMZ, keeping beside the border as much as possible as I searched for the Valley of Tears.  Caught by surprise during Yom Kippur, it was there that some two hundred Israeli tanks held off five times that number of Syrian tanks which were sweeping westward across the Golan Heights.  Israel tank crews, celebrating Yom Kippur at home, had rushed to their marshaling areas as the front lines began to collapse.  There was no time for a coordinated response; as each tank had enough men, regardless if the crews even knew one another, they were sent east into the fight.  The fight was brutal. Today a few Syrian tanks remain abandoned in the valley, rusting quietly, gaping holes where Israeli shells found their mark.  It’s a rather somber place and certainly offers a more compelling narrative than Canada’s Laura Secord and her cow.

Standing alone on a ridge above the valley, I pressed play on a small speaker box and listened to the recordings of the Israeli tanks crews shouting to one another over their combat radios.  At one point only a handful of Israeli tanks were still operational. The rest were burning along the ridge.  A local named Moshe told me the story of his uncle who’d fought in that battle.  Standing exposed in his tank hatch, he’d yelled down to his driver to fire, but the driver yelled back that the couldn’t see anything to fire at, his portal was blocked.  Fire now, his uncle had yelled again.  The portal wasn’t blocked.  A Syrian tank was so close it filled the entire view.  Regardless of how you feel about Israel, the Palestinians, or the wider Arab word, it’s a somber place worthy of respect. I stood there quietly for some time before moving on.

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The remains of a Syrian tank. Doubtful it’s crew survived the strike.

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An Israel tank left as a reminder of war past in the Golan Heights.

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Israeli trenches looking out over what was once part of Syria.

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Graffiti and war.

Further north I stopped at Nimrod’s fortress which once commanded the ancient road to Damascus.  It’s massive, hot, and looks like someone picked it up and shook it to see what would happen.   Earthquakes are not subtle things.

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Before heading south back to Tel Aviv I stopped for a few hours at Banias, an ancient temple to Pan, tucked away by the side of a cliff, and overlooking a cold mountain spring.  It is everything the Negev wasn’t.  Noisy, wet, and lush.  A path follows the quickly running spring for some distance, finally ending at a rather beautiful waterfall that drops into a dark and moody pool. The air is cool and full of scent.  Along the path I stopped next to the remains of a Roman mill and ate wild figs picked from a nearby tree.  There are worse ways to spend a day.

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