The yellow electric gate opens and closes once every few minutes. An armed soldier with grey uniform and a bright Military police vest controls the gate with two push buttons. To an onlooker this might seem as an ordinary site – nothing unusual. And indeed, peace has prevailed over both sides of the gate for the past 36 years; it is the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria.
"As an army, you cannot lose focus – in a single moment, the serenity can turn into a figment of our imagination," a senior officer said as if repeating a worrisome mantra. "We have no interest in changing the status, but a soldier who performs regular security duties has the same level of preparedness as if he was in Gaza or the West Bank.
"There is constant tension, and the question of what kind of Syria is in front of us? A country that is part of a radical axis and transports arms to Hezbollah – or a calm Syria that wants peace. There is no knowing what each day brings, or when something might happen and lead to a broader eruption," said the officer.
"Three to five kilometers from the border, and even slightly deeper, there is no dramatic activity of the Syrians," he explained. "There is always a rotation of forces, improved preparedness, adjustments and reinforcement – but nothing more than that. They are honoring the '74 agreement and are not deploying with force."
Apples en route to Syria (Photo: Avihu Shapira)
However no one is infallible: Last January, when all eyes were on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a Syrian officer opened fire at the Israeli side. Fortunately, although emptying an entire magazine, he only managed to damage the fence.
"There is no doubt that en event like this, as specific and irregular as it may be, might lead to something boarder. It can definitely start with a single person that decides to commit a certain act because of this or that influence from Gaza or the Judea and Samaria region," said the officer.
"We take serious notice of these incidents; on the one hand – if there is a threat, it must be neutralized immediately like in any other sector; on the other hand, open fire orders are adjusted according to the sensitive situation at the border between two countries. In a situation like this, it is better not to cause escalation if it is not absolutely necessary," he added.
While the officer described his doctrine, a group of tourists gathered next to him. They glanced over at the green landscape from Ein Zivan's observatory. Some purchase a few red and shiny apples from the Druze merchants.
"During a holiday like Passover, thousands of tourist swarm into every good spot," said the officer. "They are only dozens of meters away from this quiet border, and our duty is to allow them to enjoy the magnificent nature, but to keep in mind that nothing guarantees what we have now, will continue in the future."
Apples and Sheikhs
Quneitra Crossing itself is a spot where disputes are often resolved and small fires distinguished before they become a real headache for the IDF and the State. This is the job of the United Nations Disengagement Observer (UNDOF).
Thousands of polish and Philippine soldiers, as well as Indian and Japanese administrative units are deployed in the area as part of The Agreement on Disengagement signed in 1974. The force is led by Natalio Ecarma, who is its first Philippine commander.
Golan Brigade Com. Eshkol Shukrun (Photo: Avihu Shapira)
Quneitra Crossing is build of three sections: the Israeli section (due to undergo complete overhaul), the section overseen by UNDOF forces and the Syrian section. The Israeli section is guarded by a few soldiers and reinforced by a four-legged Belgian Shepherd called Angie. In addition, there are representatives from customs and the Ministry of Interior as well as others.
Some 43,000 foreign soldiers and 18,000 UN vehicles cross the border annually. Crossings for humanitarian reasons, the IDF claimed, was steadily increasing, and usually involved the residents of four Druze villages (Majdal Shams, Mas'ade, Buq'ata and Ein Qiniyye) that were annexed to Israel during the Six Day War.
"No doubt they are facing a difficult political reality, with daily dilemmas," said Golan Brigade Commander Colonel Eshkol Shukrun. "Throughout the years, the political echelon has approved gestures of different kinds, and we are here to see them through."
One of the main gestures, which can hardly be missed, is the transfer of thousands of tons of apples (250 tons a day) to the Syrian side – a mission that has been executed for the fifth consecutive year. The operaion is orchestrated with the help of UN forces and Red Cross trucks. "It is a complex operation with detailed coordination," explained Major Iyad Aktish, the brigade's engineering officer in charge of Quneitra Crossing.
Three times a year brides cross to the Syrian side. During holidays, a group of Sheikhs regularly visit the north eastern neighbor. In addition, Druze students cross the border, especially those studying dentistry and ophthalmology as well as engineering. They conduct their studies in Syria, and get certified in Israel.
This week, Major Aktish handled a case in which eight Israeli citizens asked to cross the border for a condolence visit and to transfer the body of the deceased back into Israel.
"All requests are handed over to the relevant government offices, and we implement the task at hand. There is a joint interest in these missions; it helps keep tensions in check," he said.
Quneitra bubbleWhile the world attempts to bring both sides back to indirect talks, Quneitra crossing represents the facts on the ground. The person responsible for the routine contact is Major Uzi Maor, the IDF's liaison officer.
"Matters can be promoted through common interest," Maor said. "We don't directly approach the Syrians, but rather do so through the UN, and they know to pass it along. We come up with ideas and present them to the UNDOF chief and his men; that is how we create a channel that helps maintain calm and understanding."
Major Maor noted that the foreign forces are aware of the sensitive situation between the two countries, and are performing their duties in a fair manner. Sometimes, this channel of communication is used to relate pacifying messages vis-à-vis IDF drills, or to coordinate the retrieval of a citizen that accidently crossed the border.
This bubble, which exists at Quneitra crossing, will continue to exist as long as there is a state of calm between the two neighbors. However, the IDF is also prepared for a different scenario.
In recent years it seems something has been brewing underneath the surface. The Syrians are slowly inching toward Iran and the political leadership has voiced hawkish statements toward Israel.
The weapons keep streaming to Hezbollah and on the military side, according to senior security officials, upgrades have been made, both in arms (including surface-to-surface missile with a range of more than 300 kilometers) and in training.
The 2007 attack of the Syrian reactor in Dir Azur, which was attributed to Israel, only increased tensions – and led to two instances of fighter jets being launched to the border because of what seemed like an aerial threat, and turned out to be false alarms.
And so, ahead of the holiday, members of the Golan Brigade decided to blow some steam with a game of hidden treasure, combined with trivia questions about sites in the Golan Heights. It was a brief pause from a slightly strange and difficult activity – preparing for the day the serenity disappears, and knowing when it happens.