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Posted June 2015

Death and cherries – A few days ago I was standing in an orchard perhaps a hundred metres away from the Israeli-Syrian border picking cherries. Cherries are in season right now and the only place in Israel to find cherry orchards are the Golan Heights. It was a warm day. The sky was blue, virtually cloudless and there was a light breeze. But eerily, there were no birds and the perfect cherries that I picked indicated that for a long time no birds had tried to gorge themselves on them. I soon knew why. As my companions and I silently went about our task we could hear the dull rumbling booms from heavy artillery fire that the wind had carried across the way from Syria.

Although I stopped for a moment to let the realisation sink in that not far from this idyllic orchard, some troops were waging war on each other, I eventually continued to fill my basked with sweet red cherries.

Later, having driven back up the Golan Heights, a towering mountain ridge that also straddles the boundary between Syria and the Israeli-held territory, we stopped at a view point overlooking Hauran, the volcanic plain that stretches almost all the way to Syria’s capital Damascus, some 80 km or so away.

From the Israeli viewpoint, even without binoculars, I could see the Quneitra Crossing (in the photo it’s the single white building slightly left of centre), which used to be an entry point for the Golan’s Druze civilians to travel to Syria. During my past visits to this spot, they would fly Syria’s flag at this crossing. This day no flag was up and there was no border traffic, perhaps due to the fact that this area is believed to be controlled by Syrian rebel armies. In fact, the Quneitra Crossing has become a bit of a hotspot in the Syrian conflict. Last August, it was reported that the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front had seized the strategic Quneitra border crossing from the international mission, known as UNDOF. They sent a contingent of Filipino peacekeepers scrambling for safety in Israel and took 45 Fijian peacekeepers hostage. Most recently (April 2015), media said that the Quneitra Crossing is allegedly held by the Al Nusra Front and other opposition groups, including The Free Syrian Army, but even with binoculars I could not say.

Further to the right lies the UN’s camp, a drab base just inside the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights. No discernible activity there either, which was just as well because the fields opposite the base are blackened by fires set off from wayward mortar rounds launched from the Syrian side. While all may have been quiet at the border, in the background, between the small mound in the middle and the one to its left, great billows of black smoke were rising undulatingly, as if accompanying some terrifying mortar music.

Before returning to Tel Aviv, we had a lovely steak dinner at a cowboy-themed restaurant in Merom Golan, chit-chatting about this and that. Only when I was back in the car did I start thinking about the simultaneity of incongruities – for lack of a better term. Wasn’t it totally bizarre that here I was in an orchard, where it was all peaceful and quiet, and a short distance away people were losing their homes and their lives? And how did I feel about it?

Then I remembered Herman Wouk’s novel The Caine Mutiny (New York, 1951), which grew out of Wouk's personal experiences aboard a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II and deals with, among other things, the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by the captains of ships. One day, the central character Willie watches the shelling of the Japanese stronghold Roi- Namur on some atoll. He is mesmerized. Through binoculars, he can see U.S. marines swarming the beach; some disappear. He manages to listen to a man die on the ship's short wave radio. In the evening, safely ensconced in the ship’s officer mess, he “dug his spoon into the mound of white cream attractively laced with brown. It occurred to him that there was an unsettling contrast between himself, eating ice cream, and marines on Namur a few thousand yards away, being blown up. He was not sufficiently unsettled to stop eating the ice cream, but the thought worked like grit in his mind. At last he spoke it aloud. The other officer’s gave him vexed looks. None of them stopped eating their desserts. But Ducely, who was in the habit of dousing his plate with chocolate sauce in quantities that sickened the others, paused in the act of reaching for the sauce; then he poured only a thin spiral of brown on his ice cream and put the pitcher down furtively. Keefer, pushing back his clean-scraped plate, said: ‘Willie, don’t be an ass. War is a business in which a lot of people watch a few people get killed and are damn glad it wasn’t them.’”

The passage quoted is from chapter 21 which is entitled “Death and Ice Cream”.

 

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