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Israelis evacuate as Syrian fighting nears border

Golan Heights ski resort is under threat as the Syrian conflict spills over the border. Yes, there's a ski resort in the Golan Heights.

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Smoke from an exploded shell on the border of Israel and Syria. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Authorities at Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights evacuated between 50 and 60 tourists from the summit Wednesday. The move came after the Israeli army reported sighting more than 30 armed individuals approaching the Israeli-Syrian border.

An army spokesman refused to say whether the armed group belonged to the Syrian Army or to the opposing rebels, but Israel Army Radio reported that the army believes the development "indicates that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is fast losing control of the border area."

"Assad is massacring his own people and losing control of an area that is fast turning into a weapons depot that every terror organization in the world can access," Israel Army Chief of Staff Gen. Benny Ganz said in the same report.

No border infiltration occurred, but the incident, coming in the middle of a holiday week in which thousands of Israelis are enjoying balmy weather in national parks, highlighted the tense state of affairs on Israel's northern border as Syria burrows into its second year of civil war.

More from GlobalPost: Complete coverage from Inside Syria

In the past two weeks, Israeli farms along the northern border have been hit by overshot Syrian army shells aimed at rebel units. While Israel protested the incursion to the United Nations, Israeli army sources expressed skepticism that any international body would intervene in the increasingly chaotic situation.

The Israeli army held a massive live-fire drill along the Golan's boundary with Syria about two weeks ago in anticipation of any significant spill-over from Syria.

"We are very worried. Every incursion or infiltration attempt from the Syrian border disrupts our lives and business and the quiet we are used to here," said Dolan Abu Salh, the mayor of Majdal Shams, the Druze town closest to Syria and at the foothills of Mount Hermon, which happens to be Israel’s sole ski resort.

"We have confidence in the security apparatus," he added. "If there is any danger of an armed incursion we are sure the army will do what it needs to do. On the humanitarian level, if people need help we will do what we can, but we hope it doesn't get to that point."

A SKI RESORT IN ISRAEL?

Yes, it’s true. Normally, Mount Hermon in summer is one of the breeziest and most bucolic escapes under Israeli control (the area was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, and is internationally recognized as part of Syria). Around this time of year, Israel's one ski slope, on the northeast corner of the Golan Heights, looks much like the hills of Vermont after a particularly long, dry summer.

The site, one of very few ski destinations in the Middle East, boasts only two small trails. It enjoyed one of its best seasons last year with an unusually long and glacial winter lasting from November through April.

In a desert nation, the element of exoticism — being able to drive up from one's Mediterranean seaside residence and, within a few hours, hurl oneself down a snowy incline just like in Europe — probably comes closest to explaining the fascination many Israelis have for this site.

But no matter the military or meteorological temperatures in 2012, the Hermon promises to provide significant heat in the coming winter.

Danny Danon, a Likud member of parliament, has turned the management of the Hermon site into a political hot potato attracting both adherents and the media.

All Danon did, in fact, was present legislation that would turn the management of the ski site to the national parks authority.

"The Hermon is state-owned land," he explained by way of understatement. "And I see no reason it should not be managed just as every other state-owned natural resource is run. It is a national treasure. I can't conceive of a continuing situation like the one we have now, in which local kids can see the snow-covered mountain but simply can't afford to get in. No way is that continuing."

The source for the uproar are 32 families of the well-connected local collective village, Neve Ativ, who became the ad hoc administrators of the untamed hill in the early 1970s, several years after Israel won the promontory in the Six Day War, as something of a favor to the overstretched state.

But what began as an act of goodwill has turned over the years into a lucrative private business run essentially without regulation or supervision by the state.

It is “an improvised situation which became a Wild West robbery,” said Sa'ad Shofi, the owner of SkiNeto, a ski rental shop in Majdal Shams.

THINK SYRIA’S A THREAT? TRY ISRAEL’S SKI RESORT MAFIA.

For more than 20 years, Shofi, 47, was an employee of Neve Ativ. A lifelong skier, he was sent to Austria and Canada to train and was in charge of more than 60 employees. Once he opened up his own rental business on the road between Majdal Shams and the Hermon slopes, the first open competition to the rental shop up top, he found himself facing death threats and young men menacing his clients as they drove up the hill. Eventually, his shop was set on fire.

"A real mafia," he calls his former friends from Neve Ativ.

The crew running the Hermon site is accused of all manner of shenanigans, including delaying the ski lifts so as to oblige visitors from the south of the country to remain overnight and running a monopoly of ski and snowboard equipment.

Shaul Ohana, the Neve Ativ resident who is manager of the ski site and is fighting Danon's bill, said, "The first people who tried to establish a settlement here gave up. It was really rough going and very hard to develop. The place was established as a tourist village, with Jewish Agency funds."

That last admission is what has opened the field for the quarrel with Danon. The Jewish Agency for Israel, a para-governmental body funded by Jewish communities world-wide and by the Israeli government, is under ministerial supervision. Thus, Danon said, "They can't just run it as if it were their own private playground and charge whatever they feel like and deny the citizens of Israel the right to visit and enjoy the place."

Ohana sees it differently. “No one gave us any land for free or any special money. We worked hard and thank God after 40 years it is now a successful business. So what? Is that a crime?”

Emanuel Yafe, 42, a Jerusalem resident who grew up in Europe, enjoys the idea of taking his three young children up for a taste of ski culture, but cannot abide, "The same prices you pay in the Alps for two measly slopes. You have to leave home at four to get there by eight, you have to fight just to get in, you pay just for the right to park, you wait three hours, the equipment is antiquated, people are yelling at you. I have no idea why we went up there, honestly. It’s the idea of snow."

Meanwhile, not only the Knesset, Israel's parliament, roars at the gate. Syria is meters away.

Ohana said, "It’s all fine. Everything is quiet here. The armed group was several hundred meters away. Nothing's going on.” 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/israel-and-palestine/121003/syria-israel-border-golan-heights-mount-hermon-ski-resort