Going to Mount Hermon
Rocket fire, soldiers, and day-tripping skiers collide in the contested borderland between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.
Tel Aviv is full of animals: gray-chested crows hop along cable lines; dogs tug at their leashes; and thousands of feral cats wander across rooftops, sleep on the warm hoods of cars, and peer out from behind the tires of parked delivery vans, skittish from moped traffic, unruly children, and years of suicide bombings in the White City.
On January 28, a friend and I hired a cab to take us north from Tel Aviv to the ski resort on Mount Hermon, which lies within Israel-controlled territory in the Golan Heights. I was traveling with Davide Frattini, the Middle East correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Our taxi was a white Opel sedan, dirty from city traffic. During the 135-mile ride, we spoke of animals to avoid talking about recent rocket attacks in the area, a new flare-up in the fight between Israel and Hezbollah. Frattini, who is forty-six, told me that before the second Intifada broke out in late 2000, there hadn’t been so many dogs in Tel Aviv. But after the Dolphinarium discotheque suicide bombing that killed twenty-one people in 2001, and the four years of bus bombings that followed, the city was anxious. “First, they had a lot of sex,” he said. “Then they bought dogs.”
The Golan Heights have been occupied by Israel since the country captured it from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel, which has for decades built settlements in the territory, officially annexed it in 1981, but the global community—including the United States—still considers that to be a violation of international law. In 2006, after Hezbollah launched an attack on Israeli border towns, the two sides went to war. Over the course of thirty-four days of fighting, forty-four civilians in Israel and about 1,000 in Lebanon were killed.
1Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack. However, U.N. peacekeepers in the area reported that the drones came from Israeli airspace.
Tension between the two sides increased last month when Israel launched a drone strike against a Hezbollah convoy stationed near the Syrian border.1 The attack killed seven men, including an Iranian general who reportedly had been dispatched to the region to advise Syrian officials on combatting Sunni extremists. Hours later, Al-Manar, a Hezbollah-affiliated TV channel, warned that Israel was “playing with fire that puts the security of the whole Middle East on edge.” Israel has yet to comment publicly about the strike.
In the days that followed, the Israeli army deployed missile batteries from its Iron Dome defense system around the area; according to an Iranian news agency, Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, the commander of the country’s Revolutionary Guard, threatened “the final collapse of the Zionist regime”; and a twenty-three-year-old Palestinian man stabbed thirteen people aboard a bus in Tel Aviv. On January 21, the U.S. embassy in the city warned its citizens against riding buses and forbade government employees to travel within 1.5 miles of the Lebanese border without prior approval.
According to Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper, Israel sent Hezbollah a message through Moscow, saying that it was “not interested in the deterioration of security and escalation on the northern border.” For its part, Hezbollah too seemed hesitant. Its forces were already overextended supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Iran, meanwhile, was busy trying to secure international support for its nuclear-energy program at the P5+1 talks in Geneva.
In Tel Aviv, citizens went about their days as usual. They waited at bus stops along Allenby Street and congregated by the hundreds to watch a street performer play a flying-V style violin in Magen David Square. The northern entrance of the open-air Carmel Market was blocked by crowds of shoppers sifting through carts of discount housewares and clothing. When I asked a kebab vendor if he was frightened of the market being targeted, he laughed. He was young and handsome, with a close-cropped beard, dark eyes, and long lashes. He put his hands up behind his head to imitate sunbathing. “Last summer I was on the beach,” he said, “and up above you see one, and two rockets. And then one, and two of the Iron Dome. It was like a nice fireworks.”
Mount Hermon is called the “eyes of the nation” because its altitude makes it Israel’s primary strategic early-warning system in the contested lands along the borders with Syria and Lebanon. I’d only seen it once before, in a home movie posted on YouTube. The mountain’s scrubby, treeless slopes were full of skiers wearing blue jeans and sunglasses who’d come to see the rare spectacle of snow cover in the Middle East.
As we drove toward the Golan Heights, the driver told us he’d never been to Mount Hermon. He was aware that the resort had been evacuated the day before, when two rockets fired from Syrian territory landed in the region, but didn’t seem concerned.
We were only a few miles outside of Tel Aviv when Israel Hatzolah, an Israeli news group, began tweeting that Israel Defense Forces soldiers had been attacked near the Lebanese border:
BREAKING: Security situation unfolding along Lebanon-Israel border 2 cars up in flames possible mortar fired from Lebanon, injuries reported
URGENT: Residents near Lebanese border urged to remain indoors after possible mortar fired from Lebanon, at least 3 injured, IDF on scene.
BREAKING UPDATE: 6 wounded, 4 in serious condition, after Anti-tank missile hits IDF vehicle near Lebanon border, IDF returning fire now.
In Yokne’am Illit, about eighty miles outside the ski resort, we checked again:
BREAKING: Hezbollah terror organization claims responsibility of todays attack wounding at least 9 after anti-tank missile hit IDF Jeep.
JUST IN: Mount Hermon ski resort has been shut again, all visitors being evacuated by the IDF following latest security situation.
PM Netanyahu: “To all those who try to challenge us on the north, I suggest you look at what happened in the Gaza Strip.”
The driver glanced in the rearview mirror and noticed our concern. We told him about the attack in the Golan Heights. The cab slowed. Did we want to go on? he asked. It was a good fare for him. We had agreed to pay him four hundred dollars for the day; if we turned back he would get maybe one hundred dollars. I shook my head, motioned for him to head back to Tel Aviv. Frattini could tell I was shocked that the driver had been willing to proceed. “I told you,” he said. “They don’t worry about it.”
On the way back, Frattini told me about a moment last July, during the fifty-day Gaza war, when he and his daughter were in Tel Aviv’s Meir Park. An air-raid siren sounded, and his daughter – “She is an Italian girl,” he said, “she is just visiting” – ran in three different directions, panicked. Finally, he had to corral her in his arms. He led her to a nearby tree, where she watched a dog wander through the open park, dragging its leash around, searching for its owner.
Chaz Reetz-Laiolo’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, Salon, Artforum, Harvard Review, and the Best American Nonrequied Reading anthology. He lives in California with his daughter, Isa.