It’s been a while since my previous post in “A little corner of .il”, and I think we all deserve a little respite from the summer heat. That’s why I’ve decided to write about Mount Hermon this time.
Israel has a surprisingly large variety of climates for such a small country. In my previous post in this corner, I wrote about Mitzpe Ramon and the Makhtesh in the Negev desert. While nearly half of Israel is desert, things get steadily greener as you travel north.
Mount Hermon is at the very tip of Israel’s northern border with Syria and its highest peak is on the border between Syria and Lebanon at 2814 meters (9232 feet) above sea level. The highest point within Israel’s borders is at 2236 meters (7335 feet) above sea level.
Mount Hermon today
Mount Hermon is the highest point in Israel and as such serves as a good vantage point for military surveillance of southern Syria, where most of the Syrian army has been deployed for many years, near the border with Israel. Mount Hermon is nicknamed ‘the eyes of the country’, as it serves the purpose of providing early warning before a Syrian attack.
However, in addition to its role as a military asset, Mount Hermon serves as a recreational ski resort as well, being the only place in Israel where snow falls every winter and in large, ski-worthy quantities. Families bring their children to have the experience of seeing snow, building a snow man, making snow angels and having snow fights- experiences that cannot be had anywhere else in the country, except for Jerusalem, which has very small amounts of snow once every few years.
When I was younger, my family used to visit Mount Hermon once every few years on Passover. My father would have us get up at the insanely early hour of 3AM. We would leave the house by 3:30 and be in Tveria (Tiberius) by 5:30. We would arrive at the gates at 7:00 and then wait for them to open. That way we avoided holiday traffic and had the snow all to ourselves to play in for a few hours.
In spring, the snow thaws and flows underground into the rivers of the Golan Heights, feeding the Jordan River that, in turn, flows into LakeKinneret- the Sea of Galilee, supplying roughly 25% of Israel’s drinking water. The melting snow reveals a beautiful mountainous landscape teeming with wildflowers dotting a number of hiking trails that are not always open to the public, due to military restrictions in the area, being near the border of both Syria and Lebanon. Both countries are hostile towards Israel.
This Passover, I had the pleasure of hiking on one of these trails. Although Mount Hermon is right next to the hills of Galilee and the Golan Heights, it has a unique collection of flora. Here are some photos.
Geography and Folklore
Geographically, Mount Hermon is part of a large mountain range, stretching along most of the Syrian-Lebanese border. The Beqaa valley in Lebanon, which is known for its vast opium fields, lies in the shadow of this mountain range. The mountain’s name, Hermon, is mentioned in the Bible. In Syria, Mount Hermon is known as Jabal e-Sheikh (the mountain of the sheikh), because of its white covering, resembling the long white beard that a Sheikh might sport.
At the foot of the mountain there is a small pool, surrounded by cherry trees, grown by the residents of the Druze village of Mas’ade. In Hebrew, the pool is known as Brekhat Ram (Ram pool). In Arabic it is called “Ein a-Sheikha”- the eye of the Sheikh’s wife, looking up at her husband and ensuring that he remains faithful to her.
I took this amazing photo from a small hill outside Kibbutz Nimrod, overlooking Brekhat Ram.
Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights were part of the French mandate after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI, until Syria was founded in 1946. Mount Hermon, along with the Golan Heights was captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel made a strategic decision to push the Syrians back from the hills overlooking LakeKinneret, where they had a habit of sniping at Israeli fishermen. LakeKinneret lies at the bottom of a valley, which makes it hard to defend. The Israeli leadership at the time understood that in order to safeguard Israel’s very existence, they needed to hold the high ground. The border today has a series of hills on both sides of the border that provide a natural barrier for any army trying to pass between them.
In 1973, Syria and Egypt took Israel by surprise and declared war at the height of the Yom Kippur fast, when most Jews were in Synagogues, praying. Syrian commandos recaptured Mount Hermon, and Syrian tanks raced across the Golan Heights. Surprised with the speed with which they reached LakeKinneret, they stopped and awaited orders to continue southwards to Tel Aviv. However, at this point, the IDF had had time to recruit the reserve forces and slowly pushed the Syrians back.
Israel lost 2,222 soldiers in the war, and over 7000 were injured. Syria suffered 4000 casualties and over 10,000 injured. Israel and Syria signed the Agreement on Disengagement on May 31st 1974. As part of the agreement, Israel retreated from some of the territories captured in the war. Since 1974, the Syrian border has been Israel’s quietest border.
The Golan Heights were brought under Israeli jurisdiction by a law passed in the Israeli Knesset in 1981.
In the 1990s Rabin’s government began peace negotiations with Hafez Assad, the father of the current Syrian dictator. Assad Sr. demanded that the Golan Heights be returned to Syria as a prerequisite to any negotiation, a demand that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets in protest.
Today, even though Israel’s opposition to the notion of “land for peace” has been greatly eroded over the years, the Golan Heights remain largely in consensus in the Israeli public opinion. The Golan Heights and Mount Hermon are considered tantamount to Israel’s security, and handing them over to an unstable dictatorial regime would be foolhardy. The recent question marks raised over the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty serve to prove that.
I plan to write about the Golan Heights in more detail in a future post.
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