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ISRAEL: Land of landmines

February 8, 2010 |  7:35 am

All Israelis know the iron rule: never stray off the main roads in the Golan Heights, and never ever cross cattle fences. The cows aren't dangerous, but the mines are.

There are said to be around 2,000 minefields in the Golan Heights alone, its landscape concealing hundreds of thousands of anti-tank mines and anti-personnel mines. Some are Syrian; many others Israeli, planted around army bases and other places. There are countless other minefields throughout the country, mostly the Jordan Valley and the desert plains of the Arava.

A grim reminder of this came Saturday. Israelis flocked to the Golan Heights in droves to romp around in the snow, an attraction that reaches other parts of the country but rarely. The north was packed with tourists. So was the way up to Mt. Avital that, like next-door mountain Bental, is an extinct volcano crater. Mt. Avital -- Tel Abu Nida by its Arabic name -- is part of a nature reserve. It's also home to an army base -- and a minefield.

Maybe it was the snow that obscured the warning signs, maybe hundreds of cars parked on the side of the road, and maybe a fence was put up in haste after the fact, as one eyewitness charged. And maybe Israelis tend to cut corners, as one senior officer remarked. It doesn't matter. A family was playing in the snow when a mine exploded, mangling a boy's foot, injuring his siblings and giving Israel a wake-up call about a situation that only seems normal.

The father's image, his white T-shirt stained with blood after carrying his injured children out of the minefield where they and hundreds of others were playing, is stirring a public debate on the topic.

But mines have been claiming casualties all along. Most victims are Druze, residents of a handful of villages that remained after Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. Natives of the region, they might know what places to avoid but mines get dislodged over years and move. It's worse in the south, where sandy topsoil washed away in violent flash floods moves mines too. Last year, a hiker was gravely injured in a Golan minefield with a few friends. The army's famed airborne rescue and evacuation unit was called to airlift the wounded man from the field but the rescue turned into a tragedy when the cable detached and the victim was dropped to his death.

The army regularly maps and maintains the minefields, even on a daily basis, but concedes that fences and signs need upgrading. And it agrees that some can be cleared, presumably those around non-military installations. But it prefers civilian bodies to bear responsibility. Besides being dangerous to remove, clearing mines is hugely expensive, explains Pini Dagan, who after a long army career in the field now owns a company that handles all types of ordinance and munitions, including landmines. The insurance is very high, the equipment very expensive. Dagan says there are millions of mines in Israel. Other estimates are lower.

Does Israel need them? Depends who you ask.

Today's Golan is different from that of 40 years ago, says Eli Malka, regional mayor who has repeatedly appealed to the army to clear some minefields in favor of development. Three million people visit the region every year; it is the country's most toured area. After despairing of the army's help, the regional council hired a civilian contractor to clear a minefield to expand a community. It cost them 2.5 million Israeli shekels. They still can't use the land, he says; the army won't sign off on it because it didn't approve the company.

Jerry White was a 20-year-old East Coast college kid studying in Israel when he lost his leg hiking through a Golan minefield 25 years ago. He is among the founders of Survivor Corps and a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. He's pushing for Israel's compliance with international treaties or, at the very least, with its own state comptroller's report that said a decade ago that the minefields needed to be marked clearly on civilian maps in all languages and that the hundreds of thousands of mines determined unneeded must be cleared. 

Late last year, an Israeli named Dian Or joined their campaign to clear Israel of mines. Only 32 people have signed his online petition. No one in the world thinks this is a legitimate weapon anymore, he says, as mines invariably kill civilians, not soldiers and have no strategic value. 

Others say some are indispensible.

Avidgor Kahalani commanded a tank battalion on the Golan in the 1973 war, for which he received the medal of valor. He knows the area inside-out and agrees that some minefields are unnecessary. But pointing to the same comptroller's report, he stresses that the Israeli mines serve a clear purpose of stalling an attack until reserves are called up and "we can't give them up" -- not on Mt. Avital, a strategic hilltop 800 meters from the border with Syria.

Yiftah Rontal, former ground force commander, says he hopes for the day Israel won't need mines on the Golan. "But from what I'm reading in the papers, I don't think that day is coming closer. Perhaps the opposite," he told the radio Sunday.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem