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Golan Heights: Picking cherries within earshot of a war zone

Druze cherry-pickers in the Golan Heights

Residents of the Golan Heights - a rocky plateau which borders Syria and Israel - are all too aware fighting in Syria could come their way.

It is cherry season in the Golan Heights. On the lower slopes of Mount Hermon, trees are heavy with sweet red fruit, glistening among the bright green leaves.

A Druze friend had invited us to come and pick some cherries in her family's orchard near the village of Majdal Shams in the far north of the Golan.

A woman stood on a stepladder, handing down bunches of fruit. Spread under the trees was a picnic rug, with a large vacuum flask of coffee.

"You must try the ones from this tree," my friend said. "They're really good."

"How far are we from Syrian-controlled territory here?" I asked.

"Not far," she said. "It's just there." She pointed at a barbed wire fence a few metres away. It was hung with a sign saying, "Danger: mines".

Image caption Bethany Bell visited the Golan Heights during cherry-picking season

"That's Syria," she said.

"You can hear the bombing from here," she told me.

"Some of the bangs are just the Israeli army training, but others are from the civil war in Syria. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. It's getting close," she said.

Israel and Syria are technically still at war, but for almost four decades the Golan has been quiet.

Now though there is a sense of growing tension.

Last week Syrian government and rebel forces fought over a nearby UN-monitored crossing point.

And Austrian peacekeeping troops there decided to pull out.

Israeli troops have begun conducting military training exercises among the houses in the heart of the village of Majdal Shams - something the locals say did not happen before the war.

For many of the Druze here, the conflict in Syria is personal.

"We are Syrian," one man told me. "Syria is our country - we live under Israeli occupation here. And most of us have relatives over there."

Traditionally, the Druze have had close religious and political ties to the family of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

The secretive Druze religion, like Mr Assad's Alawite sect, draws on branches of Shia Islam. And strong Syrian nationalism has tended to mean loyalty to the Assads.

"Bashar is the legitimate president of Syria," the owner of Majdal Sham's butcher shop told us, as he watched the news on Syrian national television.

"He's a good man. The rebels are just terrorists." But others in the community are horrified at the accounts of brutality by Mr Assad's army.

"I am very pro-Syrian and absolutely against the Israeli occupation of the Golan," one woman said. "But what Assad is doing is wrong.

"He is destroying the country. The Israeli army is tough - but Israeli soldiers don't rape people."

She smiled wryly. "Assad is managing to do what Israel never could - even after 40 years of occupation. He is managing to divide us."

Sitting in his home, with a picture of Che Guevara above his desk, Shehadi, an anti-Assad activist, said attitudes towards the Syrian government were slowly changing.

"It's about freedom," he said. "But lots of people in the Golan are still in the middle and they are too frightened to take part in protests we've seen here because they are worried that could hurt their relatives in Syria."

A little later, we hiked up Mount Hermon, through the dry runs of Israel's only ski resort. At the top, was a group of young ultra-Orthodox Jews, on a day out.

They had come to see the view of Syria in the valley below. It looked quiet and absolutely still. I could not make out a single car moving around the roads and villages.

Image caption The view into Syria as seen from Mount Hermon, Golan Heights

"Did you feel worried about coming so close to a war zone?" I asked one couple who were on a visit from Alaska.

The man smiled happily. "Not really," he said. "I believe God looks after Israel."

But other tourists are becoming more cautious. At her cafe in the village of Masa-ade next to Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan, a woman served us kunafe, a cake made of sweet cheese, delicately scented with rose water.

"I'm Syrian," she told us. "But I speak Hebrew as well as Arabic. It's useful because we used to get lots of Israeli tourists coming here. But these days they are staying away."

"What do you think will happen in the war?" I asked. She shrugged sadly. "I'm not very political," she said. "But we want peace."

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