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When the People Will Hike

By Paula Stern
12/9/2009, 12:00 AM
One of the interesting things about Israelis and Israel is that we love to hike. We climb mountains, descend into riverbeds. We seek water, the highs and lows of the land. We explore the caves, the hills, the valleys. Everything, everywhere...whenever we can. It's a national obsession - perhaps born out of too many years in which we could not freely hike our land.

On extended days off from the army, rather than avoid his army friends, Elie will arrange to get together and hike with them. Our family has gone on many hikes - few really challenging ones, as I am a bit nervous having children walk near the edges of cliffs and things. It is probably another one of the seldom recognized miracles that happen daily here that so few people actually get injured.

Some of Israel's recognized tourist sites are carefully marked. Follow the green or blue arrows. Stick on the path and climb and descend...that's what I do. I am a path-follower. Boring it is, but what can you do. As soon as I leave the path, I am sure scorpions and snakes and lions and tigers will attack. No, it's the path for me (at least as far as my kids know, so let's leave it at that. Kids, stay ON the path).

What do most Israelis do...especially the young ones? (Read here my three sons and most army-age people.) Well, if there are arrows, it is too much evidence that man has been here before. Why walk the path, my sons often feel, if they can scale the sides. Elie is often the first to break off to the side...his brothers follow as I slowly wind my way safely and slowly along the path. They sprawl on the ground, relaxed and amused, as I catch up to them.

As I said, it is a national obsession that we can't do often enough because despite living in this beautiful country, we live in the real world. We work...hard...and if you keep the Sabbath, you really have no day in which you can simply escape to the far reaches of our land.

So, when can we hike? The answer is the holidays - as many of them as possible. We go in the summer, on Passover, on Sukkot...and on Hanukah, which starts at the end of this week.

And...where do we go? The answer is everywhere - from the very north, to the very southern tip of Israel. To the north, we have the beautiful Galilee. For those of us who live near the desert, we are always and constantly amazed by the green, lush forests. Water runs freely there and the urge to step into the water, even in the winter, is overwhelming. Further to the east, lies the Golan Heights. It is magnificient, majestic...on a scale that is all Israel. There are waterfalls and nature hikes aplenty up on the Golan; cows roaming in the fields. It borders the Sea of Galilee, so there are beaches, free and clean, along the edges of the water and cliffs to your back as you stare across the sea.

Stick with me, you'll see where I'm going in a minute. We love to hike in the south, in the west, in the east...and yes, in the north.

Elie is with his unit on the Golan Heights. They serve a dual purpose up there - it allows our artillery to be on the border where one of our enemies lies just a few kilometers to our east...and it's open space where they can train. Each loud explosion echos across the land. You can hear it for miles away...likely in parts of Syria too. Good. Let them hear our might and strength...if it pushes war off for this day and the next. Let them hear and know we are ready not only for war...but for the true peace you can only negotiate when your enemy realizes that peace is his only option.

So, they are up there, Elie's unit, to train. It's been almost a year since the Gaza War. In the next few weeks, Elie's unit will conduct several training exercises. To keep them combat-ready, some of the exercises will be with live ammunition. They need to feel the power of these machines; they need to feel the ground shake, the fire explode as the cannon fires.

So, to summarize, in the next few weeks...
  • You have a nation that loves to hike...and people who feel their greatest challenge is to explore every crevice of our country and a holiday that will pull the people in huge numbers.

  • You have an artillery unit, located atop the Golan Heights - a relatively small chunk of land. Because it is so small, the open fields, except for the areas marked as mine fields, are often marked as shooting ranges which are also used as grazing areas for cows in a carefully coordinated dance between civilian and army. The army is required to open and shut gates in the fields to keep the cows contained (another "only in Israel" phenomena).
This is not a good combination and so, despite the army needing to practice, there will be no live ammunition exercises during the week of Hanukah lest the "Israeli" in us all encourages someone to walk in the middle of a training exercise.

Apparently, this is not as unusual as it sounds. Elie said that from late Thursday evening until Sunday (which basically defines our weekend), the army also doesn't shoot live rounds because it knows that people tend to wander into these areas despite the clear markings that warn them otherwise.

Note to Israelis: Please don't take my word on the above. If you go to the Golan and see a sign saying 'Fire Range"...stay out!

Note to Elie and his unit: Enjoy the quiet and happy hanukah!