Heavy Rains and Exploding Cows: Realities of Living in an Area of Forgotten Minefields and Lost Munitions

Landmine Warning Sign in Golan Heights, Israel, 2009, Photo by Crivvit

Landmine Warning Sign in Golan Heights, Israel, 2009, Photo by Crivvit

ISRAEL GOLAN HEIGHTS - Located in the country's northern region, is an area renowned for its rugged terrain and beautiful landscapes. It is an expanse of land full of high rising peaks, long-extinct volcanoes, and untold breathtaking views. Few people are aware, however, that it is also an area which is home to a darker and more sinister reality; a reality brought out every so often by reports of randomly exploding cows, and sometimes- even people. No, I'm not talking about violence brought about by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or rockets and mortars launched from nearby Lebanon or war-torn Syria. What I am referring to, however, is a danger brought about by the silent yet deadly remnants of the land's recent and conflict-filled history: landmines and lost munitions.

Few would think that the area in which famous and influential historic figures once lived and roamed, figures such as the biblical prophet Elijah or Jesus of Nazareth, would now be home to more than 2,000 separate minefields, scattered around in almost no specific order. [1]  Many of these minefields are decades old, even predating Israel's conquest and occupation of the Golan Heights, which was captured from its northern neighbor, Syria, at the outbreak of the 1967 war. Others have been planted more recently; their existence justified by the military and security industry as “necessary for self-defense.” [2] It is not common knowledge however, even among native Israelis, that littered around the region are supposedly more than 260,000 individual anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, not including the untold number of UXO's (“unexploded ordinance”- a technical term for bombs and grenades), which have been left over from a series of wars and conflicts between Israel and its neighbors.         

Every year, these landmines and UXO’s pose a risk to both locals and visitors alike. They are “dumb” weapons; unable to differentiate between man or animal, friend or foe, and specialize only in the killing and maiming of those unlucky enough to pick them up or step on them. Sadly, this is an issue which only rarely makes it to the public’s attention. When it does, it is only after grim “accidents” or fatalities occur, like one which took place in 2010 and involved two children, who were injured (one of them severely) after accidentally stumbling into an improperly marked minefield to play in some recently fallen snow. Another incident, occurring just last year, involved a female Israeli Army officer, who lost a leg to a landmine while carrying out work near the Syrian border, after recent heavy rains had swept the mine out of its original location. It's a bitter reality, but people seem to forget that minefields tend to last much longer than the conflicts in which they are needed for.

These recent examples also show another aspect which the issue of landmines brings up: the fact that these weapons are not always confined to one place. They can in fact slowly shift and move around from year to year (especially after heavy rains and soil erosion) and can spill over into areas once deemed “safe”. This is especially true in the Golan Heights, where the area’s elevation and slopes come into play in adding to the soil’s shifting nature. In this way, the landmines are notorious for rendering relatively large areas potentially unusable for decades, and this is a fact that is not lost on the local population, who rely on the region’s already limited land for grazing and agricultural purposes. Since 1967, there have been more than 70 separate instances of people, mostly local Druze and Arab inhabitants, who have been injured or killed by these ever-shifting explosives. Additionally, the mines create a hazard for livestock, and an untold number of cattle and other grazing animals are fatally injured each year by venturing too close to these hidden explosives. [3]

So how much of the Golan Heights is contaminated by the presence of landmines and UXO’s? Although there is no way to say for certain, conservative estimates place the number at a little more than 9,000 acres (or roughly 14 square miles).  [4] That means 14 square miles of trails, hills, and even populated areas that are all in danger of these little-known but deadly remnants of war. Furthermore, while the presence of landmines and UXO’s in the region is largely overlooked, it is not entirely forgotten. Locals who live in the area are all too familiar with the psychological burden that can come with living among the threat of these explosives; especially after the rainy season, as one can never be certain as to whether or not the rain and elements have led an area to become contaminated. Because of this, the local population lives under permanent stress and uncertainty to the safety of the area around- and even underneath- them. [5]

Visitors to the area have to be equally vigil and aware of the danger. I should know. In early 2008, while living in Israel and just one month after I had joined the army, I was traveling on a sight-seeing tour of the Golan Heights. While out on a “bathroom break”, I noticed, hidden among the black volcanic rocks, a rusted metallic object. It was an old Mills hand grenade- the type used during World War Two. Without thinking, I picked it up, pocketed it, and brought it home. It was only later that I found out that it was nonfunctional; the explosive element having been removed.  Most likely, this grenade was meant to be used for training purposes. Had it been active at the time, I could have easily lost an arm- or worse. All I can say is that I got lucky. I always did have more luck than sense. Others, sadly, are not always so fortunate.

Contributing Journalist: @JonEizyk
LinkedIn: Jon Eizyk