“Did you hear that one?” pauses Rebane, an officer with the United Nations Observer Force (UNDOF), while speaking to a group of tourists huddled around him.
What he’s referring too is the distant sound of a mortar blast exploding across the border in Syria. A chilling experience for anyone who is not accustomed to the sound of war.
“The main area of action is nearly 250 km from here, but we often hear bombs exploding and gunfire,” says the Estonian born soldier from our viewpoint at the top of Mt. Bental in Israels Golan Heights.
The tourists pause to listen, but a few minutes pass with silence and they continue to line up for photos with Rebane, nervously excited to be photographed with a UN peacekeeper so close to one of the worlds most disputed wars.
After the group moved on I was invited to step into the small observation post and catch a glimpse of a distant network of imaginary lines, Alpha and Bravo, that have been drawn to create the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between Israel and Syria. Is stretches over 75 km long and varies in width from 10 km to a mere 200 meters further South. Established more than 30 years ago in May 1974 following the Arab-Israeli war which took place earlier in October 1973, the United States helped to broker this diplomatic initiative resulting in the necessary creation of the UNDOF.
The UNDOF mandate has since been to help maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syria, supervise the disengagement of both forces in the area and supervise the DMZ. Here on Mt. Bental they use powerful binoculars to scan the landscape and record observations such as the sound of explosions or movements within the DMZ. This is one of several posts that dot along the Alpha line in addition to patrols on the ground and similar posts beyond the Bravo line based in Syria.
Rebane and his partner from Belgium are each on 1 year missions.
“I served in Afghanistan in the 1980’s when I was only 18-years-old and saw action and had friends that died,” says Rebane as he looks towards the landscape below.
“I decided to move away from active combat and join the UN in peacekeeping because I don't want to be a 'professional soldier', they are real killers.”
Pressing him on his viewpoints about the conflict in Syria and his thoughts on Israel he shrugs his shoulders.
“I try not to watch the news and treat my work with the UN as a career,” he says.
“I don’t feel politically motivated."
Soon we spotted another group of tourists making their way towards us and I took that as my cue to move on. From this location at Mt. Bental it is a mere 6 km to reach highway 98 which runs parallel to the Alpha line of the DMZ. I decided to follow it South.
The countryside is a patchwork of farms, nature reserves and monuments dedicated to fallen Israeli soldiers from the war in ’73. As I drove along I passed small convoys of UN trucks and the occasional Israeli Defence Force (IDF) Hummer. I passed horses pastorally grazing in fields and abandoned tanks and bomb shelters along the road. It is an unusual juxtaposition — like two tectonic plates trying not to press up against each other, while families from nearby settlements go hiking under the sunny skies.
Due to the ongoing instability in the area UNDOF will continue to renew its mandate, but with requirements to increase the safety of its personnel under the leadership of Major General Jai Shanker Menon from India. Despite the relative calm of my drive that day, the reality has seen UNDOF troops abducted, shot at and killed over the years. Although there have been no recent casualties the unpredictability of the region requires personnel to upgrade their training and equipment. A reality that may mean another 30 years of service in the area.