Tracing the border

Last week we went on holiday. Grounded by the prospect of a two-week quarantine in the UK and a two-week quarantine in Israel, we opted to stay put. It wasn’t where we thought we would be spending this summer, but it was interesting and memorable for many reasons. 

We stayed in the Upper Galilee, which is north of the Sea of Galilee. If it hadn’t been for corona then I know we’d have ‘done’ this area in a weekend rather than giving it a week and we would have missed heaps.

The Hula Valley, where 500 million birds visit each year on their migration from Africa to Europe.

The area is staunchly Israeli and by that I mean that Palestine seems much further away than the short drive that had brought us here. Signs are predominantly in Hebrew and we felt foreign again in a way that we had forgotten around Jerusalem.

There was a straightness to the roads and an order to the streets that revealed the newness of many areas. People were friendlier and casually dressed. It seemed that because of the lack of tension between neighbourhoods, there was less need for religion to be the defining characteristic on show.

While Palestine was missing, the shadows of other conflicts loomed large instead. In 1967 Israel captured the Golan area from Syria and this remains highly contentious and unrecognised by all countries except the US.

Driving through the Golan at sunset, there was a beautiful golden light cast over the rolling hills and rocky slopes. There were small green areas with crops growing but few houses and a lot of natural landscape. Tucked in the undergrowth were bunkers, abandoned tanks and ‘danger of mines’ signs by the roadside. Both signs of conflicts past and present.

The Golden Golan

The next day we took a cable-car up Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel which has its peak in Syria. This serves as a ski-resort in winter but is a border and a surveillance point first and foremost. From here, we could look into Syria and barely imagine how different life was across the border.    

The town of Majdal Shams sits a few kilometres downhill from Mount Hermon and has the largest Druze community in Israel. Here we found yet another distinct community and religious group. Most residents here are of Syrian descent and Arabic speaking. They have a different style of dress, their own secretive religion and revealed yet another patch on the fabric of the land.

Feeling at home again with our pigeon Arabic, we had a falafel and hummus lunch followed by a taste of the best kanafeh[1] in town. It was above 35 degrees which might have put off a less committed traveller, but we are slaves to trying good food!  

Later that evening, we heard the roar of a fighter jet overhead. The following day’s news reported that Israeli airstrikes had hit several targets in Damascus. Two days later shrapnel damaged a building and car in the otherwise sleepy town of Majdal Shams. It seems that living in the foothills of this particular international border, is not without the constant shadow of escalating tensions.

The Rosh Hanikra caves mark the North Western border with Lebanon

The next day we found ourselves looking out on another Israeli neighbour: Lebanon. The town of Metula is bordered on three sides by Lebanon and is the most northerly part of Israel. The border was marked with the same grey snaking wall that scars the West Bank.

Not all of our holiday was spent tracing the border. There is a wealth of natural beauty spots in the Upper Galilee and no fewer than nine nature reserves offering wildlife and waterfalls, canyons and cliffs and cool bathing spots to escape the heat.

Banias Waterfall
The water comes from Mt Hermon and feeds into the Jordan River

The sun bakes the best soft fruits here and there are more steak houses than we’ve seen anywhere else. It is indeed a land of plenty, and it is not hard to imagine why the land has been so hotly contested over the years.

I highly recommend a visit here as the land and the nature are outstanding. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I wonder if my reluctance to return is not so much based on what is here as what is not here.  

[1] Traditional Palestinian (and Druze it seems) dessert with melted cheese and honey. Heavy and wintery, surprisingly good.

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