Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mount Bental


Mount Bental, an inactive volcano, is located in the Golan Heights on route 98, nearby to Kibbutz Merom Hagolan. A short but steep drive brings one to the parking lot and a brief stroll leads to the summit. On the summit there are remnants of the Six Day War - with bunkers and trenches, and a free recorded vocal explanation relating to the ’67 war.

The expansive panoramic view at the summit provides an excellent observation point overlooking valleys and parts of the Golan and Hermon, spreading from Israel into Syria. A clear view is offered of both the new and old towns of Kuneitra – located on the Syrian side of the border. Clearly visible is the disengagement strip that exists along the Syrian-Israeli border – which is controlled and patrolled by UNDOF – the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force. As the name suggests, it is a purely observational force.

The border between Israel and Syria reflects the sensitivity of their political relations. In spite of periods of heightened tension, this border still represents Israel’s quietest border with its neighbors – in terms of border related incidents since the Yom Kippur War, 1973.

Mt Bental, provides a very good site to recall the events of the Six Day War, especially the last two days that precipitated in the capture of the Golan and Mt Hermon, The conflict between Israel and Syria had its antecedents following the War of Independence, 1948, and primarily relating to the establishment of DMZ’s –demilitarized zones along their mutual borders, and issues related to development of agricultural areas, and water-related resources. Numerous international incidents had taken place on both sides, generally followed by Syrian artillery barrages on Israeli civilian settlements or Israeli air responses or Israeli naval activity on the Kinneret.

An audacious breakthrough by Israeli infantry into Syria’s most fortified position on the Golan Heights, at Tel Fajar, sent shockwaves through the Syrian Army and almost overnight resulted in the routing of the Syrian presence along the Golan.
Kuneitra was the largest Syrian town in the Golan Heights until 1967, and had represented a strategic position for the Syrian Army command, serving as the Syrian administrative capital of the Golan.

During the Yom Kippur War, Kuneitra was recaptured by the Syrian troops, and later retaken by the Israeli counterattack. Following the 1974-5 cease fire agreement, Kuneitra was returned to Syria conditional on a prisoner exchange. Initially the Syrians maintained they would rebuild the old Kuneitra, and repopulate it. Instead, they developed a new town nearby, Kuneitra Jdeide, and maintained the old Kuneitra as a ghost town for propaganda purposes to demonstrate how Israel had wreaked havoc and destruction upon the town.

To reach the site, drive along Route 98, until Kibbutz El Rom, turn east at the sign and continue another 3km, following the signs and following the left curving road. Park your vehicle near the cluster of trees and enter the memorial.

Today, the site hosts the memorial for fallen members of the armored corps from the 77th Brigade. The memorial is called Oz 77 – from the Hebrew word for “strength”. On the eastern corner of the grove of trees, looking out towards the battle-ground, is a free vocal recording of the events of the battle.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

To Become A Taxi Driver

I am a licensed tour guide. For two years I studied the history of the Land of Israel. I studied Archaeology. I studied the Bible. Religions. Zionism. Geomorphology. I traveled the length and breadth of the country. And I was tested. Written exams. Oral exams. And finally in the end, the ministry of tourism gave me the coveted license to be a tour guide in Israel.

Now you might think that after all that I could just go out and start guiding. Well, yes and no. From the perspective of the law, whenever a guide picks up a tourist and transports them to a sight, the money exchanged is looked at as taxi fare. That's correct. As far as the law is concerned, the tour guide in that instance is simply a glorified taxi driver.

And so in Israel, if you want to guide and transport your visitor as well, you need to also have in your possession a taxi drivers license. For us tour guides, it's called an "eshkol" (cluster - hence the cluster of grapes the ministry of tourism uses as their emblem.) And so begins my odyssey of acquiring such a license so that I can join the honored ranks of taxi drivers here in the Holy Land.

OK. So of course there's the typical bureaucratic runaround you would expect at the Drivers License bureau. Fine. But after all that your informed that you will have to first undergo an intensive physical and psychological exam prior to being allowed to enter the taxi driver course. A few months go by and you receive a letter in the mail informing you to show up at some examination center in Tel Aviv in one week where you will be tested.

In addition to the physical exam you are also asked to take a 400 question psychological exam, as well as a half hour interview with a psychologist. A few weeks after the exam you are informed of the results. Then the fun begins.

As you would expect, there is going to be a driving test. But before that happens, you have a few weeks of classes and exams to get through. Time, money, and three weeks of not being able to work. Oh! Did I mention that this is all in Hebrew, not exactly my mother tongue. One advantage I had from the get go was that I was not taking the course with the typical riff-raff. Instead a course was organized (that's a whole story unto itself!) just for licensed tour guides. Which meant practically that we were exempt from studying "familiarity with the land" which is a huge chunk of the course, and we were exempt from studying the English language.

So what does a taxi driver need to know in Israel before he/she can be licensed by the ministry of transportation? Well first, we were tested in our proficiency of the Hebrew language. Interestingly enough, we were told that the reason that all the exams are in Hebrew is since we are becoming "public servants" of sort, we need to be proficient in the language of the country. OK. That makes sense. But then why are there exams available in Arabic and Russian?

So we all passed our entry exam. First came the class on knowing all the laws applicable to driving a public vehicle in Israel (taxis, buses). You need an %87 to pass. I passed. Our teacher, from Tel Aviv, spontaneously decided to share with us during class that although he was not observant, since his parents died last year he does not miss minyan and even attends a class in Talmud. Then we studied defensive driving. Passed that too. Fire Emergencies. Passed. That was our Friday afternoon class. Just what we want to be doing on a Friday afternoon.

Then came the big one. For an entire week we took a crash (not a pun) course in understanding the workings of a motorized vehicle. In Hebrew, we learned how a diesel engine works. A gasoline engine. Brake systems, steering systems, electric systems, gear systems, cooling systems, etc. etc. etc. Did I mention that this was all in Hebrew? I can hardly tell you the names of all of a vehicles parts in English! Oy vey! And just because I need to transport a tourist from the hotel to visit Masada? I'm not going to fix the car if there's a problem with it. I'm taking it to the mechanic. No matter. The law requires that I be familiar with the entire workings of a vehicle. Fortunately the teacher of this class has been teaching for 40 years and did a great job teaching us lay persons. Our teacher's 22 year old son was killed in Gaza in 2003 during an attempt to arrest terrorists there.

Another part of the course required us to become knowledgeable with Israel's labor laws and how the entire labor and government system works, including all its courts. As tour guides, we are legally looked at as freelancers, and so most of the labor laws do not even apply to us. But I'm so happy now to know that my bus or taxi driver Ahmed knows that the President of Israel is elected by the Knesset every 7 years and that he knows the process of how the Budget is passed by the Knesset each year. Now I'll have something to converse with him about!

And almost last but not least, first aid. Technically, I should have been exempt from this part of the course since I am already in possession of a valid Israeli First Aid certificate which I received during my tour guide course. Notice I used the word "should". When we presented our certificates, they were deemed unacceptable because only the month and year of the course were written on the certificate, not the exact day of the month. And so after much trouble (and money)we were able to acquire written documentation (faxes not acceptable) to the exact date we took the course. The cherry on the pie was finally finally receiving a response from the ministry of transportation after we had already completed the first aid course (again). Our request for an exemption was declined. Lovely. We all did perfectly well on the first aid exams.

In a few weeks I will be taking my driving exam (again). I was bold and took the exam with a mini bus using a stick shift. Mistake. Especially when I didn't stop at the yield sign when the examiner told me to do so. It was a language thing. All in all, at least I got the opportunity to become friends with a bunch of other guides. And my level of respect for bus and taxi drivers? Well, I'll let you respond to that one.

PS Yes. Finally, finally, after 3 driving tests I finally passed. They even asked me to parallel park. In all my lessons, nobody ever bothered to see if I could even put the van into reverse! My knee is killing me from using the gear pedal. And would you believe it? My new license still restricts me to an automatic vehicle only. Go figure! Is it worth another trip down to the drivers license bureau? Time will tell.