By Joseph Puder
The period that encompasses Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha’Shoah), Israel’s National Memorial Day (Yom Ha’Zikaron), and Israel’s Independence Day (Yom Ha’Atzmaut), all occurring this year on April 24, May 1, and May 2 respectively, are considered by secular Israelis as the National High Holidays. Tourists find in that week of holidays a strong burst of nationalism and pride. Israeli flags are hung on people’s balconies, windows, cars, and public buildings. Amazingly, on Yom Ha’Shoah, the entire nation stands still, in silence, while all vehicular traffic comes to a stop, even in the middle of busy highways. The same feat is repeated on Yom Ha’Zikaron. A minute of silence is observed nationwide, and it is respected.
It is in between these hallowed holidays that my good friend, Avi Golan, a retired officer in the paratrooper brigade, and currently a licensed Tour Guide, joined me on a tour of Israel’s northern and northeastern border areas. I was questioning Avi about our personal security as we embarked on the trip. He assured me that we are fairly safe. We drove from Nahariyya, on the Mediterranean Sea in northern Israel, eastward along route 89 and passed Mt. Meron, the tallest mountain in the Galilee. We then turned north along the border fence with Lebanon. Literally, steps away from us to the north was Lebanon. We came across a United Nation’s observation post just a few feet away and saw their white vehicles. A few hundred yards farther north was a Hezbollah outpost, with its yellow flag painted on a water tower. Once again, I asked Avi why they were not shooting at us since they could clearly see us, and he replied, “They know that they would receive devastating fire from our forces that would turn Lebanon upside down.” Traveling up the road to Kibbutz Menara, reaching the wide observation deck of the Kibbutz, perched high up, the Lebanese border was a few hundred meters away. We could see the Lebanese villagers going about their business, and we were assured by local Kibbutz members that Hezbollah has a presence in the village.
Although the peace along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon has been preserved now for over a decade, there is no guarantee it will last for another decade. It is hard to gauge the true extent to which Israel would be able to deter a Hezbollah attack. But for now, Hezbollah’s deep and costly preoccupation in the Syrian conflict makes it difficult for this terrorist organization to precipitate another conflict with Israel. Moreover, domestic Lebanese considerations preclude it. Its involvement in Syria and the resultant flood of refugees into Lebanon is putting pressure on Hezbollah not to provoke another war with Israel, at least not at this time. In fact, Hezbollah has not fully recovered yet from the 2006 war with Israel. Additionally, Hezbollah’s paymaster and arms provider, Iran, has made the preservation of the Assad regime a top priority for now. It is likely that Tehran’s ayatollahs seek to reserve Hezbollah as a retaliatory force in case its nuclear facilities are attacked by Israel or by the U.S.
The Hezbollah leaders have nevertheless sought to establish a second front against Israel on the Golan Heights. Israel has managed however, to eliminate a number of key Iranian and Hezbollah officers operating next to the Golan area. Still, with an annual income of about $1 billion, Hezbollah has been able to increase its missile arsenal from 15,000 to almost 100,000 with millions in annual funding from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it’s with ties to the Assad regime and increasingly with Russia. Some of these missiles have a ranges of 300 kilometers and can reach most areas in Israel. Hezbollah has also acquired Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles that have proved to be lethal to Israeli naval ships.
Driving along the border we reached Kibbutz Mishgav Am a bit farther north. We then swung east towards the Golan Heights, observing Mt. Hermon in the distance on our way to the Druze town of Majdal Shams. Here, we once again found an observation point a few hundred meters from the border fence with Syria. We stood at a hill opposite another ‘shouting’ hill belonging to Syria, where Druze families divided by the border used to shout news and greetings at each other. At this place, neither Syrian forces nor Hezbollah terrorists can be seen with the open eye. In the rugged and mountainous terrain, the border fence is along a patch of green grass with no habitation visible. Yet, most of the recent skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah have occurred along the Syrian front bordering the Golan Heights. Clearly, if Hezbollah decided to take action against Israel, it is likely to come from the Syrian side.
The devastated border town of Quneitra is a likely place for a Hezbollah strike. It is from this direction, on October 6-10, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, that 700 Syrian tanks driving westward encountered about 175 defending Israeli tanks, in the battlefield known as the “Valley of Tears.” It is named so for the many burned tanks and half-tracks left on this battlefield, along with many dead Israelis and Syrians. We entered the “Valley of Tears” where Lt. Col. Avigdor Kahalani and his crew stopped the Syrian onslaught, destroying 500 of their tanks. It was truly a heroic act that saved Israel from a Syrian conquest.
As the sun began to set, we drove down from the Golan Heights toward the Sea of Galilee. We continued through Tzemach and Beth-Shaan, into the Jordan Valley. Facing eastward, we could see the lights of Jordanian towns and villages. Peace with Israel has helped Jordan elevate the standard of living of its people. New hotels and classy restaurants are now to be found not only in Amman or Akaba, but in the northern cities we now faced to our east.
As the evening set upon us, we headed back to the Tel Aviv area. The next day was Israel’s Memorial Day, a time to remember the ultimate sacrifices made by the defenders of the Golan Heights. Israel remembered however, all of the men and women who fell in all the wars and terror attacks, and those who served and fell in the pre-independence underground militias. Those young men and women gave their lives to establish an independent Jewish state, protect its independence, and safeguard their families and friends. They fought and died in wars and terror attacks forced upon the Jewish state.
It was quiet and peaceful along Israel’s northern borders, but that is only because Israel’s enemies know that the Jewish state is determined and capable of inflicting a heavy price on those who will attack its people. The Memorial Day observances make it clear that Israelis will not allow the sacrifice of over 23,000 men and women to have been in vain.