Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Border Crossing

Ari Bussel

The Jordan River

A family friend is a professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The city is located at the confluence of the McKenzie and the Willamette rivers. I vividly remember looking at awe at a river, thinking of God’s power, the enormity of nature and the fragility of man.. Thursday, I was standing near the Jordan River, gazing at the water surface. It was a serene picture, playing with my senses. The water still like glass, on the opposite bank two men fished, the distance shorter than the cement-Los Angeles River.

Although just a miniature of the “River” in Los Angeles, the greenery on both banks of the Jordan River was overwhelming. Even the birds, en route to spend the winter in warmer climates in Africa, expressed their awe singing, flying up and down. As if confused, they needed to get closer to the ground – “Is that what one calls a ‘river?!?’” they asked in utter astonishment?

I, too, was confused. I heard water flowing into the river, but I would never have called this waterway a “river.” We were on the way to the Golan Heights, in the North East part of Israel. Israel’s water shortage is severe, so the driver asked to stop to “help water nature.” It was clearly unnecessary – the green all around was strong and alive, a feeling of healthy growth and rejuvenation.

We were at the Hula Valley in Upper Galilee. Millions of birds pass by every year, some staying to enjoy the winter here. Once a lake surrounded by swamps, this fertile area is now a nature reservoir and major environmental attraction for nature lovers.

We started our ascent to the Golan Heights, looking back down at the Jewish settlements subject to daily sniper hits from the Syrian military that prior to 1967 controlled the area. One of these is Kibbutz Dafna, where my mother and my uncle lived upon arriving from the ovens of the Holocaust.

The love of life, innate survival instinct and the fight against extinction constituted a force like an eruption of magna, thousands of degrees burning from inside the earth to its cold surface. Survivors of the concentration camps, mere shadows of human beings, skeletons scarred with unimaginable and unspeakable horrors, brought with them a will found nowhere else.

Like a river of lava, they captured the essence of life in their wake, the swamps and malaria of the Hula, the daily routine of the Syrians shooting at their nurseries, schools and homes, the annual migration patterns of birds and the cycles of emergence from the dryness and death of the summer to the sprouting of the winter and flowering of the spring.

Drawing from the Zionist ideals of my grandparents, the children grew to become productive adults in the modern country of Israel. They raised their own children and built the country. Like hardened lava, they have become a rock, possessing a unique strength.

The realization we must protect our Land of Israel, our only home, galvanized a determination like lava. They served as officers in Israel’s Defense Forces and taught their children this debt to country. They embedded values of life and the meaning of being a good person with a craving for peace in future generations.

The Ascent to the Golan Heights

Subjected to the forces of nature over millions of years, the lava has created the fertile valley from which we were now ascending. Once we reached the Golan Heights, we were on a plateau, awash with vineyards and apple orchards.

The morning was cold, but now the sun was appearing. We approached the Hermon Mountains, a large, barren mass overlooking the plateau. At the bottom were towns, cutting into the very foundation of the mountains like rows of beautiful buildings, three and four story villas and private residences. These are two of four Druze “villages:” Mas-ada and Majdel-Shams.

We are in Israel, yet the residents of these villages do not have Israeli passports. Instead, they receive “travel documents.” They cannot vote in Israeli elections and do not serve in the Israeli military. Many, some say most, are hostile to Israel. Their families, clans of a sort called Hamulot are divided by a man-made border between Israel and Syria.

I stood at the border crossing at Kuneitra with the Deputy Minister in charge of development of the Galilee and the Negev. With us there was an elderly lady, covered in traditional clothes, lamenting her son who had gone to study in Syria some nine years earlier. After two years he disappeared.

Since Syria and Israel are in a state of war, travel between the two is not permitted. Given the humanitarian nature of this case, the mother was granted a special permission to go to Syria to look for her son. Some say he is in prison, others claim he disappeared and will never surface again (apparently a somewhat common occurrence in Syria).

The mother had returned empty-handed, with no knowledge of the whereabouts of her son. I cannot help thinking of the five Israeli soldiers captured by foreign enemies and who to this very day remain POW-MIAs. But this case is different. Syria actively promotes young Druze to come to study there. Druze families from both sides of the border inter-marry, and thus there are families in Israel where the Syrian wife has not been to see her parents and siblings for many years.

We were sitting with one such Syrian Druze whose father passed away, her mother’s health is very poor and yet she cannot return to her homeland to visit. The Deputy Minister, a Druze himself, is working to change that. He believes that by allowing free passage between Israel and Syria via the very same border crossing where we stood, relations can improve and a beneficial exchange can be fostered where both sides can benefit.

The Deputy Minister Plowing Peace

The day has turned sunny and engulfs us in warmth. We are standing at the border crossing, Israeli soldiers on one side, UN forces in the middle and a Syrian flag a mere walking distance away. Two Israeli flags were blowing in the light wind, proud and alive, extending a hand in peace to the flag on the other side.

The UN forces are not needed and want little to do with the enemies on either side. They want to return safely to their home countries, alive, whole and healthy. Little if anything is required of these “peacekeeping forces” for the UN resolutions are usually unenforceable, lacking any teeth thus with little effect. The UN enclave and quarters remind me of a vacation spot, a surreal implant in this area.

The Deputy Minister reminds us of a previous exchange he had orchestrated. The Governor of Kuneitra was standing on the Syrian side, he – a member of the Israeli Cabinet and a close contact of Prime Minister Netanyahu – standing on our side, and the prospects of peace real. Israel is exporting Golan Heights apples to Syria and other Arab countries. It can likewise export other products and commodities, but more importantly, it can provide knowledge and experience – in agriculture and industry.

The Deputy Minister’s vision and enthusiasm are contagious. Peace looks achievable, we can see it just beyond the separating fences, feel it in the warm sunny day. Suddenly, it eludes us, reminding that the Syrian Arab Republic that gained independence on April 17th, 1946, from the League of Nations mandate under French administration and is currently ruled by President Bashar al-Asad does not truly want peace. It remains in a state of war against Israel, still seeking destruction of the Jewish Homeland.

I am reminded of the endless possibilities that exist between members of the same families in Florida and Cuba. I look around certain a day will come when I visit here again, show my passport and be allowed to cross by foot to be greeted on the other side by a driver who will take me onward on my journey.

For decades Israelis dreamed of visiting Petra in Jordan, considered a wonder of the world. Many young dreamers tried to reach Petra, and gave their lives for that adventure; still others’ fates remain unknown. Jordan and Israel were enemies once, the countries at war. Today, one can take a day’s excursion from Eilat, Israel, to Petra, Jordan. How close and possible this is to becoming a reality between Israel and Syria, right here at the Kuneitra border crossing.

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