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Banias – case study of a Middle East boundary dispute

In the complex world of Middle Eastern boundary disputes, spare a thought for Banias, ancient City of Pan. Its location in the Golan Heights beside a water source on a strategic crossroads has condemned it to a history of tug and war for over 2000 years.

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The settlement was based on the spring at the foot of Mt Hermon on whose summit, according to an Arab proverb, it is winter, on whose shoulders it is autumn, on whose flanks spring blossoms and at whose feet eternal summer reigns. The spring forms the Banias Stream, key tributary of the Jordan River, which then flows into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest reservoir.

First to settle here and worship the divinity of the springs were the Canaanites (Joshua XI, 16-17). Then in 198BC it was the scene of the Battle of Panium between the Macedonian armies of Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Greeks of Syria whose elephants won the day. To commemorate their victory they built a temple to Pan, goat-footed god of nature and wild things, creator of panic in the enemy. The local name became Paneas, the origin of modern Banias – Arabic has no ‘p’, so uses ‘b’ as the closest sound.

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The Romans renamed it Caesarea Philippi (4BC – 43AD), after the son of Herod the Great, and the city was rich in biblical associations.  Here it was that Jesus told Peter he would be the Rock of the Church and be given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew XVI, 13-18).

Conflicts continued here between the pagan tradition and Christianity, then between Christians and Muslims. Under the Crusaders the site was known as Belinas and on the hills above, an hour’s walk away, they built the imposing Subeiba Castle, today called Nimrod, which still dominates the pass leading up towards Damascus. A Christian sanctuary dedicated to St George was built above the grotto, whom the Muslims called Al-Khidr (the’green one’) and later converted into a mosque. Today it is maintained by the local Syrian Druze of the Golan.

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After World War I Banias found itself contested by both the British Mandate over Palestine and the French Mandate over Syria. Britain wanted to retain control of the whole Jordan water system, while France wanted total control of the route linking Damascus and the Golan to Tyre on the Lebanese coast. The case of Banias was among the compromises reached, where Britain agreed for the line to be drawn 750 metres south of the springs so that it fell to the French. The French Mandate came to an end in 1946 and Syria gained its independence as a state within the same borders.

When the state of Israel was created in 1948 without the agreement of  its Arab neighbours, the stage was once again set for conflict. Israel insisted on control of the Jordan headwaters, but Syrian troops refused to withdraw from Banias. Israel began work in 1951 on a channel to drain the nearby Huleh swamps, bulldozing Arab villages that lay in the way, so Syria reinforced its military presence. A swimming area on the stream is still called the ‘Syrian Officers’ Pool.’

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Syrian and Israeli units attacked and counter-attacked, each determined to take control of the vital snowmelt from Mt Hermon. Israel announced a plan to divert the water from the Banias stream into its National Water Carrier, and Syria countered with a plan to build a canal from Banias to Yarmouk. When the heavy machinery moved in to start on the project, Israeli guns destroyed them.

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In June 1967 the penultimate day of the Six Day War saw Israeli tanks storm into Banias in breach of a UN ceasefire accepted by Syria hours earlier. Israeli general Moshe Dayan had decided to act unilaterally and take the Golan. The Arab villagers fled to the Syrian Druze village of Majdal Shams higher up the mountain, where they waited. After seven weeks, abandoning hope of return, the villagers dispersed east into Syria.

Israeli bulldozers raised their homes to the ground a few months later, bringing to an end two millenia of life in Banias. Only the mosque, the church and the shrines were spared, along with the Ottoman house of the shaykh perched high atop its Roman foundations. Within days Israeli volunteers began building on the banks of the river, creating Kibbutz Snir, the first Israeli settlement on the Golan. In 1981 Israel annexed the Golan Heights in an illegal move unrecognised by any state but international law remained impotent. No foreign power dared intervene.

Since 2003 Israel’s confidence has increased and the Golan is now covered in scores of settlements, while dozens of hotels offering settler-made ‘Chateau Golan’ serve as weekend getaways for Israeli city elites. A ski resort has been built on Mt Hermon. Tourist websites refer to ‘Israel’s Golan Heights’ and all local maps show it as part of Israel.

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As for Banias, now emptied of residents, the site has been incorporated into one of Israel’s many ‘nature reserves’ on the Golan. Four walking trails have been neatly laid out in loops around the ancient city, its springs and its waterfalls. The souvenir shop sells T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Israeli Air Force’ and ‘Mossad’.

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Explanatory signs give the Israeli version of history.

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The free leaflet that accompanies the entry ticket explains Banias is now  ‘a perfect place to understand the pagan world of the Land of Israel and Phoenicia’. On the map, the basilica has become a synagogue, the Ottoman shaykh’s house has become ‘Corner Tower’ and the Syrian Officers’ Pool is simply ‘Officers’ Pool.’

History in Banias has been rewritten once more. But is this the final version or are there more chapters to come?

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(This piece also appeared in Aeon digital magazine as below):

https://aeon.co/ideas/how-modern-disputes-have-reshaped-the-ancient-city-of-banias

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36548749

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36067643

 

 

 

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Syria’s Golan Heights – a new flashpoint in the war?

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On a recent visit to Syria’s Golan Heights I overheard an unexpected conversation. At the Quneitra Viewpoint, an Israeli guide was telling a group of American tourists that the Israeli Defense Force had just upgraded the threat of conflict here on the border from ‘low’ to ‘moderate’. The reason, he said, was that Israeli intelligence had calculated, following the success of pro-Assad operations in the northern Idlib area, that the field of conflict was now likely to move here to the south. Israel would act immediately, he said, to destroy any heavy weaponry Hezbollah might move into the area. ISIS has also recently become active close to the border, allying itself with the local Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.

Israel views the Syrian civil war as a gift, its chance to persuade the US administration to recognise its 1981 annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights. Pronounced illegal under international law and unrecognised by any country, Israel has simply ignored all condemnation and incrementally taken control of the Heights. My recent From Our Own Correspondent piece on the Golan, broadcast on 10 March, produced the predictable Israeli attacks.

But Israel  does not get everything  its own way. Four Syrian Druze villages continue to thrive defiantly on the Golan, their populations slowly increasing despite the fact that intermarriage is rare and they can only be born into the faith. The Israeli press likes to make much of the Druze increasingly taking up Israeli citizenship but in reality very few do.

Here is the text as broadcast:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072hlvz (starts at 19.12 minutes)

“Standing in a peaceful spot high on the volcanic cone of Mt Bental, I am gazing across into war-torn Syria. It is a surreal experience. But this is the Golan Heights – where anything is possible.

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Beside me is a bizarre hilltop cafe called Coffee Annan  – after Kofi, the former UN Secretary General  –  staffed by enthusiastic Israelis from the nearby settlement of Merom Golan,  Israel’s first to be built on the Heights. They are selling beer and pizza along with local pomegranate liqueur and skin creams.

Sharing the vantage point are busloads of Israeli tourists and a couple of blue-capped UN observers stationed here to patrol the ‘ceasefire’ line, while rising above the whole conflict is Mt Hermon, whose snow-covered summit  still lies inside Syria. Israel controls a listening post bristling with antennae lower down.

In the car park, I meet the cheerful Abu Miqdal, an elder from the Syrian Druze community, with a magnificent moustache and the distinctive black baggy trousers that mark him out as one of the enlightened ‘uqaal, a spiritual level attained only with the wisdom of age. He’s here to earn a bit of money in retirement by selling the famous local honey; he lives in one of the four Syrian Druze villages now cut off on the Golan.

“Down there in Quneitra is where I was working as a Maths teacher,” he explains philosophically, pointing at the now destroyed town, “When the Israelis captured it, I fled back up here to Buq’ata. Now the border crossing is closed, and our apple and cherry orchards are farmed by the kibbutz of Ein Zivan.”

Education is tremendously important to the Druze, a proud religious minority living mainly in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. Amal Alamuddin, now wife to George Clooney, was born a Druze and typifies the community’s talent.

Syria’s ruling Assad family was good to the Golan Druze, and earned their loyalty by allowing them to study free of charge at Syrian universities even after the ‘67 war, giving them a small monthly stipend. The Quneitra crossing was opened to allow several hundred students a year to continue their courses. The current war has put an end to that, so many now go to Germany instead.

Interrupted by periodic explosions from the direction of Damascus, Abu Miqdal and I exchange poignant memories of the Syrian capital, where he studied for four years.  “Although the Israelis pressurize us, we will never give up our Syrian nationality,” he assures me. “This war will end one day and our families will be joined again.”

His certainty is admirable but the realities on the ground are different. In the 35 years since its annexation of the Golan, Israel has built over 30 settlements here, 30 wineries with names like Chateau Golan, and devised nature reserves to market its tourism potential. It has built a ski resort on Mt Hermon and laid out hiking trails beside the waterfalls of Baniyas, ancient City of Pan.

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Israeli maps increasingly show the Golan as theirs, making it ever harder to remember that under international law all this is Syria, whose border once reached right down to the eastern shore of Lake Galilee.

While the world is distracted by ISIS and mass refugee migration to Europe,  Israel is quietly drilling for oil on the Golan, rewarded last autumn with a major find. It has recently completed a big barrier along its border with Syria similar to that on the West Bank, citing security concerns and the need to ‘bring stabilisation’ to the region.

But the Golan Druze are determined to maintain their identity and govern themselves. Ain Kinya, the smallest and most beautiful of the Druze villages, has its own local council.

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Numbers are steadily increasing and they are building more homes. Two Christian families live in their midst. The young Druze women I see appear free from inhibition, dressed in hot pants, ripped jeans and tight tops, strong and equal to their men.

Abu Miqdal’s generation still treasures memories of Damascus, but the Golan’s younger Druze, deprived of such cherished dreams, have found their own uniquely non-political vision of their future. Key to the Druze faith is reincarnation of souls, male to male, female to female, always into a newborn child.

They simply believe they will be reincarnated in their next lives – into the right part of Syria.”

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0e060fea-0622-11e6-9b51-0fb5e65703ce.html#axzz47OguBDQ0

http://www.jns.org/news-briefs/2016/3/22/662aep6eruyayvxv0i95axvhzbt47n#.VvKy2uKLTIU=

http://www.timesofisrael.com/on-golan-heights-idf-fights-to-keep-israel-safe-and-out-of-syria/

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24544-israel-prepares-evacuation-plan-for-golan-heights-galilee-settlements

The pressure is building on the Golan Heights

 

 

 

 

 

#Syria’s oil and gas potential in the Eastern Mediterranean is wasted, while Israel’s thrives

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: 'God is Syria's Protector'

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: ‘God is Syria’s Protector’

No one mentions it much, but Syria, according to the specialist Oil & Gas Journal in Jan 2013, has the largest proved reserve of crude oil in the Eastern Mediterranean. Other lucky beneficiaries are Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon, all with large reserves of oil and gas. The gas reserves in this underwater Levant Basin are so huge the estimates say they would supply all of Europe’s gas demand for 7 years.

Yet while Israel has already started production from its Tamar gas field, and the huge Leviathan field is on course to follow in 2016/2017, and while Cyprus is also gearing up for its share and discussing shared export arrangements with Israel so both countries can benefit, neither Lebanon nor Syria, locked in conflict, can make any headway with exploiting these potential riches.

Western oil companies abandoned exploration operations because of political stalemate, but even now, after two and a half years of war, Syria’s government was still in April 2013 (according to a Congressional Research Service report) in discussion with Russia and China over offshore oil exploration. Syria is also said to have oil shale reserves estimated up to 50 billion tons. Russia’s state-owned energy companies have a huge stake in the Damascus regime’s survival so they can continue to profit from Syria’s oil and gas reserves, so Russia’s interest in maintaining the status quo with Assad in charge is clear. There is too much to lose, and it also wants to thwart Israel’s plans to build an undersea pipeline to Turkey, the obvious way to export oil and gas to Turkey (and thence to Europe) while excluding Iran and Russia, the two current supplier’s of Turkey’s energy needs. This also explains Obama’s instruction to Israel in March 2013 to apologise to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident, so that diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey could be restored. America wants its ally Israel to be able to export oil and gas to Turkey. The longer Lebanon and Syria take to sort themselves out vis-a vis oil exploration and production in the Eastern Mediterranean, the better, from the US point of view.

The conclusion?  There is no incentive for the US to end the Syrian war now that the chemical weapons issue is sorted, as they want no interference in Israel’s ability to export from its Eastern Mediterranean reserves. And there is no incentive for Russia to end the Syrian war while it can still benefit from Syria’s potential Eastern Mediterranean reserves in future, since Bashar is now solely dependent on Russia (and possibly China) for future exploration and production.

The Syrian people do not feature in this equation, as usual.

Related articles:

http://www.ibtimes.com/syria-losing-out-huge-reserves-oil-natural-gas-eastern-mediterranean-sea-while-cyprus-israel-get

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22509295

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/10/31/turkey-israel-gas-idUKL5N0IK3MF20131031

http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Energy-Resources/2013/10/02/Slow-progress-in-Israel-Turkey-talks-threatens-gas-pipeline-plan/UPI-65691380733010/

http://www.energy-pedia.com/news/israel/new-155694

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/aug/30/syria-chemical-attack-war-intervention-oil-gas-energy-pipelines

No appetite for war in Eastern Turkey – except with Israel

My research trip to Eastern Turkey over the last couple of weeks yielded some unexpected discoveries. The trip was designed to update my Bradt Eastern Turkey guide for its second edition, but I kept finding myself sucked towards the Syrian border.

After revisiting Urfa’s Balikli Gol, the sacred fish ‘Pool of Abraham’ in temperatures of 40C, I drove 45km south to Harran to inspect its famous termite-like beehive houses, relics of biblical living, and its ancient university on the site of a pagan moon temple. All was quiet and exactly as I remembered it, so I drove on just 15km kilometres further south to Akcakale, the border town with Syria where five civilians were killed in October 2012 by shells fired from inside Syria. All quiet now, but on the edge of town I was startled to see a heavily crowded tent city, hemmed in by barbed wire fence. Its misery was palpable even from a distance. Designed to house 23,000 Syrian refugees, I later learnt it was now home to 36,000, a figure that defied belief. How could so many possibly live in such conditions in such stifling heat – let alone in Ramadan, due to start in a few days’ time?

I drove back and forth along the main road in front of the camp, feeling helpless, passing  several families hitching lifts, wondering if I should stop for them, but fearful in case I was in turn stopped by the Turkish authorities and in some way implicated for my involvement. Stories had reached me about how some Syrians were starting to run away from the camps, desperate to lead something closer to a normal life, after months of confinement.

In the end I decided my most useful contribution would be to give my food away – my picnic lunch plus two bags of nuts I had bought in Gaziantep market a few days earlier. Driving slowly, I pinpointed two small boys returning towards the camp who were carrying nothing at all. When I stopped and got out of the car to offer them the food, they were visibly startled and frightened, and required some coaxing to take the bags from me. They spoke neither Turkish nor Arabic and I wondered afterwards if they might have been Kurdish, since the area around Tell Al-Abyad across the border was a heavily Kurdish part of Syria. When I looked in the rear view mirror after driving off, I saw they had quickened their pace, hurrying back to the camp with their unexpected gift. It was an image that has stayed with me since.

Syrian refugee camp at Akcakale, south of Harran, Turkey (DD)

Syrian refugee camp at Akcakale, south of Harran, Turkey (DD)

The road past the front of Turkey's Akcakale camp for Syrian refugees (DD)

The road past the front of Turkey’s Akcakale camp for Syrian refugees (DD)

A few days later in Midyat on the way to visit the Syriac Orthodox Monastery at Gulgoze (Syriac name Ainwardo), I stumbled on another refugee camp. In contrast to the camp at Akcakale, this one was spacious and well-appointed, with cabins rather than tents, and numerous bathroom blocks similar to a European camp-site. Far from being overcrowded, it seemed largely uninhabited.

My subsequent enquiries explained why – the camp had only been built about three months ago, on land donated by a wealthy Syriac businessman, and was only for use by Syrian Christians.

Refugee camp for Syrian Christians in Midyat's Turkey (DD)

Refugee camp for Syrian Christians in Midyat’s Turkey (DD)

Syriac Monastery of St Cyriacus at Gulgoze, south of Midyat

Syriac Monastery of St Cyriacus at Gulgoze, south of Midyat (DD)

‘We feel very sorry for the people of Syria, and of course we have to help them when they come across the border to us. But we don’t want our government to go to war against the Syrian regime. We have problems of our own in Turkey, and our government should concentrate on those, not get involved in a difficult war next door.’

But a handful of people, Sunni Turks to a man, went one step further. ‘We don’t want war with Syria. But if this war grows and  becomes a war against Israel, that would be different. For that we would be ready…’

Echoes of Syria in Sidon’s Eshmoun Temple?

English: Base of a column from a temple dedica...

English: Base of a column from a temple dedicated to Hadad at the Eshmun temple in Bustan esh Sheikh, near Sidon, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sea castle in Sidon, Lebanon

Sea castle in Sidon, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Astarte's throne at the Eshmun temple.

English: Astarte’s throne at the Eshmun temple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Half-buried in undergrowth beside  Lebanon’s Awali River lies the world’s best preserved Phoenician site, the Temple of Eshmoun. The guardian sits proudly in his hut, expecting anything but visitors – the FCO Travel Advice website has ringed Sidon in potentially dodgy ‘orange’ in recent months. Erratically signposted and hard to find,  the site sits on the northern outskirts of Sidon,  and a visit involves crossing the city’s first checkpoint. But everyone seemed friendly enough despite their guns, when I passed through a couple of weeks ago.

Known locally as Bustan Al-Shaikh, the Orchard of the Shaikh, the state of this 7th century BC site, surrounded by citrus groves, is shockingly neglected. A visit to the semi-swampy areas of the temple, with its ritual basins, bulls-head shrines and sacred pools, is like hacking your way through the Amazonian jungle. Your reward is to sit on the gigantic Throne of Astarte, Phoenician goddess of fertility,carved from one monumental piece of granite, flanked by sphinxes and hunting reliefs. Her consort, Eshmoun, was a Beirut hunter whom she transformed into a reborn healing god, later identified by the Greeks with Asklepios, god of Medicine. A gold plaque found here carried the snake coiled round a staff motif that still serves today as the symbol of the medical profession.

Even more shocking is the evidence of looting that clearly took place during the 15-years of the Lebanese Civil War. Whole sections of later Roman mosaic floors, including the beautiful Four Seasons mosaic, have been stolen, the missing sections now replaced with a plaster mix. After hostilities ended, and Israel retreated from southern Lebanon, UNESCO in 1996 inscribed it on the World Heritage ‘Tentative’ list, a bit late, as everything small worth lifting has gone. Thankfully the Throne of Astarte is protected by its sheer size, as it would require a crane to lift it.

Echoes of Syria again? Its remarkable Phoenician site of Amrit south of Tartous has a similar sanctuary with  sacred pool and central altar. Beside it is a large rock-carved stadium, site of the world’s first competitive sports games, predating the Olympics by several centuries. What will Amrit look like by the time Syria’s civil war has ended?

Phoenician Temple of Melqhart, Amrit, Syria

Phoenician Temple of Melqhart, Amrit, Syria (2010, Diana Darke)

Phoenician rock-cut stadium, Amrit, Syria

Phoenician rock-cut stadium, Amrit, Syria (2010, Diana Darke)

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