Israel is transforming the Ein Fit Valley in the Golan Heights into another army base

Moshe Gilad. Jun 4, 2023

A young couple was taking a dip in the cold, clear water under a stone arch. Two others were drinking from large cans of beer. One was playing a guitar, while another was delivering a raspy rendition of an unfamiliar song. 

A large fig tree provided shade over the water. Lively conversation among the visitors centered on whether this is what paradise looked like or whether it was simply “a very pretty nature spot.” It was actually the younger participants who were more supportive of the proposition that it was paradise lost.

On the way to the spring and in its vicinity, there are dozens of destroyed buildings – remnants of home from a large Alawite village that existed there until 1967. It was one of three Alawite villages in the area, along with nearby Zaoura and the well-known village of Ghajar. The village at Ein Fit was abandoned in the Six-Day War. Its homes were demolished immediately after the fighting. 

In our tour of the valley, I caught sight of the village’s attractive mills, its gardens and terraces and large fruit trees, including figs and pomegranates along with lots of olives, dates, grapevines and almonds. It’s apparent that the homes had been substantial. And from the terraces, there are views of Mount Hermon and the Hula Valley. 
There was a green valley, now there are rifles and firing zones

Several months ago, the Defense Ministry’s planning division revealed a grandiose plan to erect an urban combat training facility at Ein Fit. There are already several such installations in the Golan. They look like fake villages or giant collections of concrete cubes or even movie sets. Soldiers scurry among the structures simulating assaults on the enemy. 

The plan for Ein Fit, which is already in its advanced stages, calls for 80 large structures, including some that are to be several stories tall, transforming Ein Fit it into a Lebanese village straight out of the hit Israeli television series “Fauda.” The plan calls for paved streets among the homes, to be traversed by tanks and armored personnel carriers. One can just imagine hundreds of soldiers showing up there too tired, hungry or irritated to take an interest in the area’s natural beauty or its Alawite history.

It should also be noted that there is already an urban combat training facility just 800 meters (2,600 feet) from Ein Fit that was built on the ruins of Zaoura. 

In recent weeks, following the public outcry over the new plan, it has been “moderated” to provide a 100 meter buffer between the homes in the urban combat facility and the spring. The Israeli army has also announced plans “to develop the vicinity of the spring.” 

When I was there, the visitors to Ein Fit weren’t impressed by the modified plan, which they considered a looming disaster that couldn’t be thwarted. They spoke about the spring and the stream and the trees but not about the prominent evidence of human activity at the site – the ruins, the stone arch, the flour mills and the other evidence of the site’s Syrian past. 

In its response for this article, the army spokesman’s office said that all of the required approvals were obtained for the facility at Ein Fit and that the plans were developed “in close coordination with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Antiquities Authority and … the Northern District Planning Bureau.” Sensitive areas have also been designated where there will be no vehicular traffic, the army said. 

Israel Eshed is a long-time Golan resident who provided the markings for hikers along the Golan Trail and published a guide to the trail (with Yaacov Shkolnik). He called the army’s plan “complete madness.” 

The country, he noted, lacks an abundance of streams. “How could they even think of destroying such a site?” Eshed fumed. He called the entire planning process distorted and accused the army of exploiting the fact that the site is entrusted to it. 

“Because the area is under the authority of the army, they approve plans in secret committees, without anyone knowing. Obviously there are alternatives. The problem is that the entire Golan is obstructed by firing zones, mine fields and closed reserves. You can’t breathe in such a situation.” 

It’s been 56 years since Israel captured the Golan Heights. Unsurprisingly, on a map, most of the Golan is marked with red squares designating firing zones. In its response for this article, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office said, “Some 70 percent of the territory of the Golan Heights territory is designated as firing zones, and some 4.2 percent of the Golan Heights territory is suspected of containing land mines.”

When it comes to Ein Fit, one wonders how the Golan Heights, an area of about 1,200 sq. km. (463 square miles), constituting 6 percent of the country’s territory and officially declared part of the State of Israel 42 years ago, is still substantially off limits to the public due to the presence of military training zones and suspected mines. In December of 2021 Naftali Bennett’s government approved a plan to encourage growth in the region. That plan called for two new neighborhoods in Katzrin and a doubling of the population of the Golan Heights as a whole. 

The Golan is currently home to some 50,000 residents, half of whom are Jewish. The other half include Druze, Alawites and others. The current debate over the construction plans at Ein Fit suggests that military law applies to the Golan Heights far more than civilian Israeli law. 

Lior Anmar, a geologist, tour guide and longtime nature preservationist, is one of the leaders of the protest against the Ein Fit training facility. Prior to my visit to Ein Fit, Anmar sent me a detailed map of the sites around the spring and the valley as well as a presentation describing the area and the complexity of the issue. Anmar’s presentation demonstrates the importance of nature in the area as well as the human history there. 

Following my visit, Anmar explained that the significance of the protest extends beyond a single site, as beautiful and important as it might be. He called the planning and approval process for Ein Fit “strange.”

“The military is ignoring the entire environmental advisory network in the country. That’s an important point when it comes to Ein Fit, but it’s [also] a matter of principle with regard to the army’s use of a committee that deals with security installations. It’s a committee that should only be dealing with secret facilities but it also approves training facilities. It’s impossible to object to anything or know anything. In such a crowded country with so few water spots – why isn’t there an orderly planning process? They plan for years under cover of darkness and then they say it has all been approved. There’s no urgency or secrecy here, but it’s convenient for the army to go through the committee, and the time has come for the public to say, ‘Enough! You’ve gone too far!’” 

Is the Golan different from other areas in Israel?

“The Golan is an outlying area. It’s the last area in the north that still has expanses that are not built on. The Galilee is very crowded. In the Golan, there’s still a large area that’s more or less natural, and the Golan is related to as if it were fallow land that nothing can be done, and that’s not true. It’s a high-value area, and the state views it as an area that can be built on. Someone called the Golan “the national battery” with its renewable energy sites. That’s a terrible mistake. You can’t load everything into the Golan.” 

The campaign itself is attracting visitors to Ein Fit and is already damaging the site.

“It’s a constant and problematic paradox, but we have no choice. The place will be severely harmed if we don’t change the plans. It’s either publicity or construction and devastation. The question is which price is higher. The campaign has to tell the IDF that the public won’t accept the current situation.”Open gallery view

Ein Fit in the Golan Heights. The little-known site is not officially a nature reserve and the Israeli army plans on building an urban combat training center in the vicinity.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

What would be a success from your standpoint?

“Success for me would be for the IDF to understand that it can’t pass plans in the security installation committee that are neither secret nor urgent. Another success would be if we can change the plans for Ein Fit, which is of very high value.” 

What’s the correct solution for Ein Fit?

“I would be pleased to see a park created there, but we have to remember that there’s huge demand.” 

What are the chances of success?

“The Ein Fit plan has been approved. I hope we can reach the decision-makers, bring them to the site, and then they would understand its value and importance. The planners are in love with their plan, but it’s important to change it.”Open gallery view

Ecologist Renana Lavi lives in the southern Golan. She says that it’s important for the planning processes to be transparent, so that the public can express its opposition in the planning committees and not only through public protest. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is limited in what it can do to address the situation at Ein Fit, she said, because it is not considered a nature reserve. And, she added, a proposed alternative – locating the training facility on Mount Hermon – isn’t realistic because that site is a protected nature reserve. 

“There’s a natural gem here that calms the heart and the soul. I’m not quibbling with security needs. I’m certainly not opposed to the army, but it’s important for the army’s needs to be met in a way that avoid harming nature insofar as is possible. There are less damaging alternatives, but I have the impression that they have made no effort to find an alternative. 

“The claim that it was done in coordination with the green organizations is deceiving the public because the subject hasn’t been debated in any committee. The statement that it was done in cooperation with the other groups, aside from the army, is simply a lie. The presumed consent of the regional council or the Nature and Parks Authority is an attempt at damage control rather than a solution. Part of the problem is that Ein Fit is considered a spring rather than an expanse.” 

Noam Ben Moshe, an ecologist at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, explained the environmental value of the urban warfare training site. “There’s almost no stream that flows year-round in Israel that hasn’t been put to use. The Pera stream is one of the only places that has remained as it had been. There’s an entire world of wildlife that still exists there. There are very large herds of deer and it’s the region with the greatest number of sightings of wolves in the country. It isn’t a nature reserve but it has been preserved despite that. There’s a forest of Atlantic terebinths that looks like a fairy-tale forest.” 

The stream creates a wet corridor between Odem Forest and the Hula Valley, Ben Moshe said, and there’s nothing else like it in the area, and that’s in addition to the abundance of flora. The training facility would be large and would accommodate large numbers of troops throughout the week, he said, and the IDF could find alternatives at other firing zones. 

In its response for this article, the Golan Regional Council, which is the local government in the area, said it opposes the army’s plans for the training facility at Ein Fit.

“It would mean harming this enchanting place. The council is carrying out negotiations with the army on the subject,” the council said. “To date, it has been agreed that a radius of 100 meters around the spring would be beyond the jurisdiction of the facility and civilian access to the spring will be arranged by the army. Training exercises without live fire will take place at the site. Vehicles will be permitted on only one route. Armored vehicles won’t be permitted [on it]. The agreement is insufficient and isn’t acceptable to the council, which has been continuing and will continue to fight with all its might to safeguard the natural gem at Ein Fit.” 

Council head Haim Rokach called for mine fields in the Golan to be cleared. “The army also has to understand that this isn’t a country that belongs to the army, but an army that belongs to the country. It too has to reduce its presence to some extent,” he said, adding that the planning process at Ein Fit was improper. 

“[The IDF] pushed ahead with a plan without consulting. We learned about it all by chance three months ago. It’s true that the area is a firing zone, and yet, they should have consulted and chosen an alternative. In the present situation, we’re on a collision course. It’s absurd that I, a colonel in the reserves, should be fighting the IDF, but what can I do if that’s the situation? Ein Fit is one of the areas that we want to develop as a park.” 

The IDF Spokesman’s Office responded added the following: “The Ein Fit area is in the jurisdiction of a firing zone and has been used for IDF training with live fire since 1982. The IDF is aware of the environmental importance of the zone and is working in coordination with all the relevant authorities to carry out its mission without harming nature sites.”

The spokesman said that all of the required approvals were obtained for the site at Ein Fit and that the plans were developed “in close coordination with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Antiquities Authority and … the Northern District Planning Bureau. In the course of the planning, the plan was changed to some extent and restrictions were introduced to meet security needs along with optimal protection of the environment. In the planned zone, IDF forces will train without using live fire and … it will improve safe public access to the zone, subject to rules pertaining to entering firing zones.” 

“In the course of planning, a number of alternative locations for the facility were considered. The alternatives were rejected due to their location inside nature reserves (the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve to the north, the Odem Forest Nature Reserve to the southeast) as well as a number of alternatives that were rejected due to their operational unsuitability or safety restrictions. Construction was restricted to [beyond a] radius of 100 meters from the spring and sensitive areas have been designated where there will be no construction or vehicular traffic were designated. The movement of armored combat vehicles will also be restricted to specific locations.” 

About half an hour’s walk along the slope leading to the Pera stream, in the shade of giant plane trees, I met Shaked Lev-Or from Kibbutz Neot Mordechai. He had come there the evening before to sleep along the stream. With his small tent nearby, he was lying on a sleeping bag and reading Arnina Kashtan’s book in Hebrew “Falling in Love With Myself Again.” 

“For me, this is a place where I come to be alone when I’m sad,” Lev-Or said. “There are lots of birds here that I love, an ancient place with unique spirituality. I come here about once a month. I was an officer in the army. I was at training facilities for [urban] combat. It’s hard for me to believe that soldiers with guns will be running around here shouting ‘Fire, fire fire.’ I’m not battling anyone. I have a firm stance regarding what’s important to me. I ask what I’m doing and not how to fight others. I have no anger. And the most important thing is for you to recommend the book I’m reading. It leads to a good and nonviolent path.”