Seeing the Syrian border, Mt Avital

Syrian fortification on Mt Avital in the Golan near the Syrian border. Photo: Linda Pilkington
Syrian fortifications on Mt. Avital, Mt. Hermon in background.
photo courtesy of Linda Pilkington

Just after Passover, we took a day trip to the Syrian border sponsored by Honest Reporting. After visiting the former Syrian military headquarters, we drove to the Ben Tal nature reserve on Mt. Avital.   

One of my ways of determining when we are no longer on the usual tourist trail is to look at the informational signs. Common tourist sites have signs in at least three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Very popular sites might give information in five or six languages. Sometimes the gift shop even lists prices in dollars and Euros, as the one at the Carmelite Monastery on Mt. Carmel does. But when all the signs are in Hebrew, I know I’m no longer in foreign tourist territory.

The signs on Mt. Avital, except for the one that says “WC,” are all in Hebrew.

The top of Mt. Avital today is a scenic overlook. We can see most of the Golan laid out below us. When it was held by the Syrians, no one visited it to see the beautiful Golan. The Syrians came here to watch Israel, and  to direct fire at kibbutzim in the Galil. Today, the Syrian military post at its peak is simply another tourist attraction. The walls around it are low—the bridge over the wall is just a few steps up and down. But the trenches here are deep.

Syrian trench on Mt. Avital in the Golan. Photo courtesy of Linda Pilkington.
Syrian trench on Mt. Avital.
Photo courtesy of Linda Pilkington.

Each trench runs from one metal lined opening to another. The openings lead into rooms once occupied by Syrian soldiers. This is no longer a military position. Watchers no longer look  for signs of invasion across the Israeli border. But we could hear the artillery of the Syrian civil war; we saw smoke rising from a distant town.

From here we could see the chain of four volcanoes, and how they stand as guardians over the wide Golan plateau. When you see geography laid out in front of your eyes like that, strategic concerns make much more sense. It was obvious why Israel, after capturing these volcanoes and the plateau to their east, did not want to withdraw back behind them. From 1948 to 1967, farms and towns in the Galil had been subject to regular artillery attack from the Golan. On some kibbutzim, everyone slept in underground bunkers. Children had grown up never sleeping in a room with windows. Israel fought two painful wars here. It is not about to return to a vulnerable boundary that would reinstate that situation.           

Looking at the green hills and the farms around us, it is hard to believe that we are looking at the site of so much war and destruction. It seems strange to us today that Syria had used this fertile land for military rather than agricultural purposes. Such was their hatred for Israel. 

And here, I learned things about the 1973 war I never knew. Its outbreak surprised everyone I knew. We knew Egypt was conducting military exercises and deploying troops along the Suez Canal. And there had been some activity in Syria as well. But neither of these countries seemed to be seriously preparing for war, according to the news reports. from the Middle East.

Most of Israel was surprised as well. But some people had realized a war was about to begin. My carpenter told me that he had served his miluim (reserve duty) summer’s end. When he was about to return home, his commanding officer had told him he would return soon. “The Syrians are going to attack in a month or two,” the commander had said.

At a staff meeting the day before Yom Kippur, General Ariel Sharon said Syria would start a war the next day. After the meeting, someone asked him where the war would end. He replied, “The other side of the canal.” The Suez Canal may not have been on the minds of country’s leadership, but it was Sharon’s objective right from the beginning.      

People in the north knew what was going on. The government did too. They watched the Syrian buildup, but managed to find explanations for it that did not lead to hostilities. By the time they realized it was for real, the whole system was taken by surprise.        

According to Elliot Chodoff, the security expert who was leading our tour,  launching the war on Yom Kippur was a Syrian strategic error. The Israel military’s strength lies in its reserve troops. Israel’s compulsory military service includes reserve duty until age 40. Every year, much of Israel’s work force has miluim for at least two weeks. The reserves are well trained and can move quickly when necessary. However, it takes time to call them up and get them into their units. The minimal response time for the reserves is 72 hours. That’s why last summer reserves were called up, a few units at a time, weeks before the IDF actually went into Gaza.

If Syria had attacked a week later, the IDF response would have been more disorganized. It would have been the middle days of Succot, when most people are off from work, and traveling. Cell phones were not ubiquitous in 1973, so contacting people would have been difficult. Once located, soldiers would have needed to take their families home, get their uniforms and equipment, and then get to the assembly point.  Traffic jams all over the country would have worsened the situation.

But instead Syria attacked on Yom Kippur. Everyone was at home or in synagogue. Telephones rang in living rooms and someone answered. Messengers went into synagogues and men got up from their prayers. The roads were empty of traffic; it was easy for soldiers to get to assembly points. And all traffic flowed in one direction: from the population centers to the front.

Although Israel’s military response may have been faster than the “required” 72 hours, it was nonetheless too slow. For the most part, the country was taken by surprise.  Until the last minute many military leaders and government officials denied the possibility of war. Their lack of preparedness is still being criticized today.

But the timing did, in a way, work in Israel’s favor, because there was another important factor that I had never considered before: the moon. Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the lunar month. The moon is almost full, and it shines most of the night. Four nights later it would be shining brightly all night long, and would not significantly wane for Four nights later it would be shining brightly all night long. It would not significantly wane for several days.

The night time battles took place on the 11th to 15th nights of the lunar cycle. Night vision goggles had not yet been developed to be used in combat. The phase of the moon was a significant factor in battles. It did not work in Syria favor.

Here in the Golan, the Syrians had 1600 tanks. Israel had 90 tanks, which were reduced to 7 by the end of the fighting. The IDF positioned their tanks during the day, and then turned off their engines. Anything moving during the night would thus identify itself as Syrian. The Syrian tanks were clearly visible in the moonlight and were targeted. 

Because the IDF was not prepared for war, its victory in the Golan was won at high cost. After terrible setbacks in the first days and the loss of many lives, the IDF was able to advance and take the Golan. The road to Damascus was open. Israel might have taken it, but there was no reason to do so. Their lines were defensible; they could protect the Galil from Syrian fire and incursion.

Farms in the Goaln, as seen from Mt. Avital. Photo courtesy of Linda Pilkington
Farms in the Golan, as seen from Mt. Avital.
Photo courtesy of Linda Pilkington

Today part of the Golan is under fire again. This time the Syrians are fighting other Syrians. We watch and wait. 

And for now, the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan is at peace. We hope it will remain so.

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