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High in the Golan, tourism takes on a political edge

MAJDAL SHAMS (AFP) – 

On top of a long-abandoned building, 50 young Arab Israelis listen attentively to Emad Madah as smoke billows into the sky in the distance behind them.

Madah is standing in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the demarcation line with Syria, explaining the fighting on the Syrian plains below.

For his guests, this is their idea of fun.

“Every time, I learn something new about nature and live out the events of history in my imagination,” says Roni Haloon, a 23-year-old student from the Arab Israeli village of Isfiya who is on his second trip with Madah.

Stunning beaches and resorts abound in the Middle East for tourists seeking rest and relaxation, but there are also other options for the more curious in the politically charged region.

Tours encompassing history or politics can also be arranged — and that’s where guides like Madah come in.

Madah gives unusual tours of the picturesque Golan Heights, which Israel took from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, delving into history and current events surrounding the disputed territory.

Other examples of such alternative tourism include tours of the occupied West Bank led by Israelis or Palestinians providing their versions of the situation there.

Madah says his tours aim at “education and entertainment” rather than profit, and seek to help people understand “the Syrian Golan before and after the (Israeli) occupation”.

– A history lesson –

His trips also boost local businesses as his guests visit restaurants and buy goods from local farmers, including the cherries, apples, peaches and pears that grow in the region.

Madah, who works in theatre and culture, has been giving alternative tours of the Golan for seven years — which leave from the coastal city of Haifa and run a full day from 8:00 am to 6:00 or 7:00 pm and cost about 100 shekels ($26).

As part of them, he talks about how Israel seizing the land affected the population.

On a recent tour, Madah discusses the town of Quneitra just across the demarcation line.

Israel captured and largely destroyed the town in 1967. Syria then briefly recaptured it in 1973, before Israel retook it and eventually withdrew in 1974.

Nowadays, the area around the town is held by Syrian rebels battling against President Bashar al-Assad.

A few kilometres away from the town, the Israeli army now allows visitors to tour the area’s former Syrian military headquarters, long since abandoned.

Many rooms in the three-floor building bear traces of conflict.

A sign out front is dedicated to Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who rose to a key position in Syria in the 1960s.

He was hanged in 1965 after being discovered, but Israeli officials say the intelligence he provided was influential in winning the 1967 war.

Ruba Abu Ramheen, 20, a law student at Haifa University, says she learns something new each time she visits the Golan with Madah.

“I enjoy the nature and pass on what I learn to my friends and family,” she says.

– 5 villages remaining –

The tour also passes the stone-strewn Hasbani River.

The river, which flows 40 kilometres (25 miles) into Lebanon, is a source of tension between Israel and its northern neighbour and almost ignited a war in 2002, Madah explains.

At one point, the group’s bus passes a sign reading “beware of mines”.

The Golan is composed of basalt volcanic rock, with 250 villages and around 150,000 people living there before 1967, Madah explains.

Many were destroyed, with just the five villages of Buq’ata, Ein Qiniyye, Masada, Majdal Shams and Ghajar remaining.

Prior to 1967, Christians, Muslims, Druze and Circassians lived there, but the majority left for Syrian-controlled territory during the war.

An estimated 22,000 Druze now live in the Israeli-controlled Golan as well as some 25,000 Israelis.

“There was a village here” called Jbat Al-Zeit, Madah says, on the way to his hometown of Majdal Shams. But it was destroyed and is now home to the Israeli settlement of Neve Ativ.

At the centre of the town square in Majdal Shams stands a monument to Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who fought against French colonialism in Syria.

Haloon, the 23-year-old student, says the tour has been eye-opening.

“I never imagined that I would enter the military headquarters and hospital that were run by the Syrian army.”

© 2016 AFP

Article source: http://www.france24.com/en/20161117-high-golan-tourism-takes-political-edge