Living in Syria the relentless barrage of anti-Israeli propaganda is exhausting. Zionist agents apparently lurk on every street corner and foreigners avoid the unwanted attention of moustachioed Mukhabarat agents by referring in public to Israel as the “country with no name.”
Syrian television features programmes depicting the bloodstained excesses of the Israeli Defence Forces while ordinary Syrians express an almost reverential fear of Israel ’s military capability. The state nurtures these sentiments, that border on racism: The Merchant of Venice is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to feature on the school curriculum, with the character of Shylock, the archetypal medieval Jewish villain, informing the political consciousness of Syrian youth.
Antipathy to Israel is understandable with a Palestinian population (those displaced by the foundation of Israel and their descendants) numbering close to a million, living in limbo between a grudgingly accepted state of residence and a cherished homeland.
Meanwhile the memories of the wars of 1967 and 1973 are still fresh, not to mention the Israeli occupation of Syrian territory in the Golan Heights, incorporated into Israel in 1981. But implacable hostility also serves to preserve national cohesion in a country containing potentially destructive sectarian tensions.
A trip to the city of Qunetra on the Israeli border goes some way to showing why hostility towards Israel is such a binding force.
After negotiating the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Syria ’s Interior Ministry that is always accompanied by the smiles of bewildered officials invariably drinking tea who show all the decorum that Arabic hospitality requires before leading you on yet another wild goose chase, a visa was secured to this restricted area.
We set off from Damascus on a grim winter’s morning; the harsh desert climate mingling with the fumes of the antiquated motor cars of Soviet vintage that throng the city.
Qunetra is situated an uncomfortable hours journey from Damascus and the cost of the trip aboard a rickety service taxi is all of ten Syrian pounds – or €0.15. As we enter rural Syria , the poverty is palpable. Ramshackle buildings offer little respite from the elements while livestock seem to share the facilities of their owners. Away from the relative sophistication of the metropolis an increased social conservatism is evident on our bus as passengers carefully maintain a segregation of the sexes.
At last we reach the settlement beside Qunetra close to the Israeli border. Pristine UN four-wheel-drives parked around the town signal the presence of the multinational forces that maintain a precarious peace. Above, the Golan Heights, source of Syria ’s conflict with Israel, loom strategically.
We are ushered into a small checkpoint which includes the bunk beds of the bored conscripts of the Third World army that George W. Bush seems intent on destroying. After refusing the kind offer of some of the unappetising concoction that the cold and hungry men are cooking on their miserable gas stove, we move on outside to await the Mukhabarat guide detailed to show us around.
Our guide welcomes us with the usual etiquette but it is apparent that he is bored by our presence which has seemingly interrupted his slumber.
Qunetra was once a stop off on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus with a population of over thirty thousand that included both Muslims and Christians. During the 1973 war it was captured by the Israeli, but in 1974 Henry Kissinger (of all people) brokered an interim agreement that led to Israeli withdrawal from this portion of Syrian territory. What was left behind serves as an indictment of Israeli methods.
We pull into the town which remains uninhibited since the Israeli departure and immediately are struck by the desolation. It feels like a ghost town, almost every house has been systematically levelled, the flat Arabic style roofs in one piece above the rubble.
Among the few buildings that remain structurally intact is what was once a hospital, but this omission was clearly not motivated by a sense of humanity on the part of the Israeli army for every square foot of the building is riddled with bullets, in a wanton act of vandalism. Left, like the tortured survivor of an otherwise massacred army, to serve as a warning against future rebellion.
The mountainous landscape, the grey sky and the apparent ethnic cleansing are all evocative of the excesses of the Balkans, this is Israel ’s Dirty War that the world doesn’t see.
From a European vantage it is hard not to have the idea that the Israelis are civilised and Western, above the barbarity of the suicide bombing Qur’an thumping Arabs, but a visit to Qunetra suggests otherwise.