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September 15, 2012

Anywhere from one to two million land mines spread the length of the Golan Heights, the site of the Yom Kippur War fought between Israel and its neighboring Syria.

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A decades-old Israeli military watchtower sits overlooking a portion of the Golan Heights. Credit: Tasha Locke

With retired Israeli Colonel Ron Schatzberg as a guide, the Olive Tree Initiative set out across the Golan, beginning near the Kinneret Sea and arriving on the border of Syria by early afternoon.

Under International law, the Golan Heights are considered occupied territories taken from Syria during the 1967 war. Col. Schatzberg spoke to us about some of the considerations that led to the continued occupation of the land from Syria and difficulties in returning it.

Historically, a major concern involving the Golan Heights has been that the altitude of the region gives it a strategic position in a potential attack on Israel. Today, however, Col. Schatzberg emphasized that that modern military tactics and weaponry diminish the value of altitude in war.

Col. Schatzberg  pointed out how the memory and worry of attack from Syria is still is present in the Israeli psyche. Such worries cause further apprehension amongst the Israeli public of a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

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Colonel Ron Schatzberg gives the group a brief history of Israeli involvement in the Golan Heights. Credit: Tasha Locke

With the diminished strategic importance of the Golan in modern warfare and shifts in regional military power, the threat of war and damage from Syrian forces – even with the return of the Golan Heights – has decreased considerably since the 1967 war. Further complicating agreements surrounding the return of land to Syria are the vast water resources of the region and debate over how exactly it could be divided to meet the interests of both parties.

Later that evening the group met with Mohammad Darwashe, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives. The Abraham Fund Initiatives has the self-stated mission of “Advancing Coexistence and Equality among Jews and Arabs in Israel,” and is mostly concerned with advancing rights for Arab Israeli citizens.

Darwashe spoke with the students about the challenges Arab Israelis face in Israel on both legal and social levels, as well as the hardships and racism many still deal with on a daily basis when put in the position of being a non-Jewish citizen of a Jewish state.

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Credit: Tasha Locke

When asked about how the Abraham Fund’s work may play into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Darwashe explained to us his personal challenges of identity as an Israeli citizen with feelings of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation.

He spoke most heavily on the importance of education and how the Israeli state’s education system can perpetuate racism against Arab citizens. The Abraham Fund Initiatives works very heavily in this field, pushing forward initiatives and programs to help improve the system to include more tolerance and cross-cultural interaction.

Our last speaker of the day was Abouna Antonious, a Coptic priest in Nazareth. He spoke with our group to help shed insight on everyday life for a religious minority not usually considered a direct part of the conflict, and to describe how it felt to be an Egyptian in another part of the Middle East looking in on the wave of change happening back home.

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