While in Isreal with Vibe Isreal, part of our itinerary was to visit Golan Heights Winery. We had a great day and the local people showed us around this unique part of the country. Think picnics, champagne, and 4×4 rides. I’ll share a bit about this region, what I’ve learned, and answer ‘is Golan Heights safe to travel’ and why you might want to.
When researching this area on the Syrian border, I saw this listed as “occupied land” by Israel. I didn’t know the full backstory as some people consider all of Israel occupied land, and I didn’t think it would be any different than another area there. Keep in mind, I am no political genius, to travel is to learn, and I am just sharing what I’ve learned and my experiences.
I was there Sept 15th, and on Sept 17th the Iron Dome (protects Israel from missiles) intercepted two missiles fired from Syria over Golan Heights. These were considered “accidental”.
Then just a couple weeks ago, they did it on purpose– this time ISIS. ISIS bombed an abandoned UN building Israel was using. They also opened fire with machine guns and mortars. Israel fought back with an air strike on a machine-gun armed car killing four ISIS guys inside.
So, with this news it seems like I need to address this before I tell people to go here and visit a winery.
So, now I’ll start with my journey there and what it was like at it’s moment of peace during my visit.
We took some 4×4’s on a drive through the region to see this part of Israel. Obviously, at this time, no missiles had been aimed toward Israel in years from Syria.
It is a place that is listed as a “don’t visit” from the US (and most) governments, but sometimes even Jerusalem gets this warning.
I travel India alone, so have always taken State Department warnings with a grain of salt since there are dozens warning girls not to travel alone in India.
I have loved the country (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Akko), and am here to share my story about visiting this region of it.
I am not writing this to persuade you of anything political but to simply share if it is safe, what issues I saw, and why you might want to visit this region, or not.
tank in the distance, below you can see barded wire boundaries. We were told these were just for show but in the articles from the recent ISIS attack it looks like they are in use.
The first thing you can’t help but notice is there are mine warnings everywhere.
I mean everywhere.
You need to stay on the path because they are just all over this entire region. That was interesting but not shocking I guess. As we drove on, we saw a tank and anti-tank trenches as well as barbed wire. Again, Israel is known to be a place that defends it’s borders, so it wasn’t something to make you feel unsafe but rather safer.
UN vehicle approaching above, and UN building and Syria border below
Eventually we reached the UN building which was on the (now closed) border to Syria. Obviously Syria’s civil war has made things even more difficult and complex in this region. The UN protect this “purple line” as the peacekeeping force they are but had to close the borders because of issues in the past.
I actually wasn’t surprised by this at all. With Israel’s history and neighbors not exactly getting along, I was not surprised to see the borders with defensive guards.
taking a photo of a soldiers hiding place (bunker?)
So, as I understand it this land is “occupied” by Israel, and internationally considered Syrian land. Israel claims this land was needed to help keep them safe from unsafe borders. Arabs, Jews, and Druze live here. Druze used to be able to cross back and forth but now no one can except I *think* the UN.
Of course people have huge differences in opinion on this. Some will condemn me for even visiting occupied land. The question is, is THIS “occupied land” different than the whole of Israel – and the answer is yes.
Israel is accepted as a country by the UN, and most of the worlds’ countries.
Obama and the US government, as well as the UN do not agree with the Golan Heights being Israel’s land though. That is what makes this area different. It’s not internationally accepted as Israel’s land by anyone. They annexed it after the Six-day war of 1967.
Technically Syria and Israel are still at war. For many years after Israel annexed this land, nothing had happened here until 2011. That is when stray mortars started falling on the Israeli side.
This was a non-political trip, so I did not get to hear the Israeli side of it, or any side of it. We were there to see the 3rd biggest winery in Israel which I know sounds odd out of the moment but I’ll explain more. I did read their side of it, and I think it’s a very interesting issue that I can imagine is tricky for everyone involved.
While on the top of a hill, we set up a picnic and had a wine tasting. We were overlooking the Syrian border. It was a surreal experience as I started to realize that these mines, tanks, and trenches, were not anything to the Israeli people who had grown up with this.
They were all in the military.
Their life was defending Israel and standing up for their country. Once they served their military time (as they are made to do) they are done and life goes on. So being around this isn’t unusual.
They have families, party, and drink wine- Israel is full of LIFE and it can’t be define by the conflict.
One building we passed for example that was falling apart, used to be an government building and now has had young people throwing raves in it.
the building mentioned
Our driver talked about how over the last 5 years they could see and hear missiles falling on the Syrian side from the Syrian civil war every other day including just days before we were there (nothing to do with Israel). It’s terrible what is happening in Syria and that’s another issue so I won’t get into that in this post.
Sometimes mortar shells would accidentally fall on the Israeli side, where we were, and you could see blackened grass. No missiles were intentionally shot at Israel up until the point I was there.
He mentioned the “rebels” who “hide out in the houses” we were looking out over on the Syrian side. The town looked half-demolished.
He pointed to one and said Al-Qaeda occupied it. Not ISIS, Al-Qaeda.
To me: surreal, to them: just conversation over a glass of wine.
I suppose I have never lived next to a civil war, in a country that has always have complex issues so I couldn’t possibly understand. Of course, I don’t know this guy from Adam and he could have been totally bullshitting me, but I don’t think he was.
What I do know is that Israelis were kind, generous, and enjoying their lives regardless of the situation they have always been in militarily.
I know that to them, this is Israeli land like ALL of Israel is. As one Israeli said to me (paraphrased) “we know we have done things that are bad, but in war you do bad things. We don’t want to be at war but we will defend ourselves because we have to”.
If you are one who thinks that Golan Heights should belong to Israel, then you would think of this as a unique area of Israel to visit in terms of terrain and culture.
So, I think I’ve shared enough about the controversy of this region. People live here in Golan Heights and go about their lives.
Israel has many elevations. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, while the Golan Heights is elevated. The terrain changes drastically as you travel. The Golan Heights winery has many vineyards across Israel and because of the altitude here, the grapes are much different than other areas. Because of this, it is a very unique winery with a huge variety of wines on offer.
We had a dinner with a very famous chef who taught us to cook. It ended up being a really nice evening. We drove down away from the border- it is a big region and you don’t need to go so close to Syria.
The winery was fantastic. We ended the night going to a big party that people came from even Tel Aviv to visit. It played trance music, had wine and food, and people of all ages enjoying the vibes. From here down, the images are from the talented photographer Matanya Tausig.
So if you were wondering ‘is Golan Heights safe to visit’? I would say not right now but hopefully soon. An Israeli would probably say yes of course it is. Me personally? I’d go back and not be afraid, but I don’t feel comfortable encouraging others to (in the same way I would go back to Istanbul now, but find it irresponsible to recommend you do the same).
Israel has held this land for years and this is not war here. Syria’s war is unrelated but happens to be next door. This ISIS attack on the Golan Heights only happened a couple weeks ago, so only time will tell where that will lead.
When I was in Jordan, we also went to a popular town that was on the Syrian border. I think if you visit this region in the Middle East, it’s not entirely avoidable if you want to see it all.
- Wikipedia says it’s safe if you don’t go over any fences and avoid mines.
- UK govt says “take care” as there are “increased number of incidents of accidental or deliberate artillery, rocket or mortar fire from Syria into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights” but to be fair if you read that whole article you’ll be scared to come to Israel, it’s kind of intense.
- After I visited, US embassy in Israel posted this message: “Due to multiple mortar rounds launched from Syria and landing in the northern Golan Heights in recent days, we urge U.S. citizens to carefully consider and possibly defer travel to that area until the situation stabilizes.” US government employees are prohibited to go to this area because of this. They have not updated since the ISIS attack.
- In general, if you do go to the Golan you shouldn’t pass East of highway 98.
Of course, you can visit the winery and not do the 4×4 tour. I think if you ask any Isreali if it’s safe, they wouldn’t hesitate to say yes and actually would think we are dramatic for asking. If you’re not sure then you don’t have to come to this area of Israel. There are many other places in this stunning country to visit! Here are some photos to get you pumped to visit Israel!
I want to make it clear that I LOVED Israel. I also love India even though some shit goes down here that is bad – I still live here and travel here. No one said the situation in Israel is perfect. It’s not anywhere. It’s my second favorite country in the world and I highly suggest you visit this intensely cultural place.
I visited Israel with Vibe Israel, a non-political charitable organization and all opinions are my own.