In The Golan Heights, Where Sunni, Shia And IDF Meet

From the Israeli side of the border, a view of how the whole of the Middle East seems to be maneuvering.

IDF soldiers on the Golan Heights bordering Syria
IDF soldiers on the Golan Heights bordering Syria
Maurizio Molinari

MOUNT AVITAL MILITARY BASE — Mount Avital is the last piece of the Golan Heights controlled by Israel before you hit al-Nusra territory in Syria. Yes, in this valley, flags with the Star of David flap in the wind just a few dozen meters away from those bearing the black jihadist symbols.

The slopes of this mountain used to represent the quiet borders of the armistice agreed upon after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — but they have since changed, thanks to the jihadists allied with the Islamic State (ISIS) headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The border checkpoint is close to the ruins of Quneitra where the al-Nusra Front has a logistics base and where, last spring, the Israeli military pushed out Bashar al-Assad's soldiers.

"Three hundred men came," remembers Eyal Zisser, an Arab scholar at the University of Tel Aviv, "And the Assad regime didn't have the strength nor the will to confront them."

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been monitoring the Syrian civil war from the 1,204-meter-high perch of their mountainside base, headed by Ofek Buchris, the brigadier general of the Bashan Division, created to deal with the consequences of the dissolution of the regime in Damascus.

With a Tommy Gun slung around his shoulders, a kippah on his head and a mix of Arab and Anglo-Saxon humor, Buchris describes what happened in the Syrian part of Golan with interactive maps showing the changes that have taken place. "Fifteen months ago on the other side there were two Syrian divisions — the 90th and the 61st," he explains.

Iranian plans

Now, where the regime's forces used to be, is the al-Nusra front, controlling 85% of the 69 kilometer-long border. "But," says Buchris, "the biggest dangers for us come from the remaining 15%."

The 15% is around Hadar, a small town in the north of the Golan Heights, from where Buchris says his troops have been attacked 15 times since March. This is the only border area still in the hands of the regime and the general notes that they're dealing with "Syrians who got their weapons from Hezbollah and Iran, and who are trained by Iranian instructors."

Grad rockets have been launched, explosives hidden along the border and "other offensive actions" have been used against Israel. "We have had four injuries, but the damage could have been much worse," says Buchris, showing a video clip in which three al-Nusra Front men can be seen cutting the barbed wire border and coming into Israel to place 20 kilograms of explosives.

Mount Avidal — Photo: Scarlight

Analysis of these devices traced them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel suspects that Tehran is behind it, committed to creating a "new fighting organization" against Israel.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Hasrallah is "turning a blind eye to what is happening," says General Buchris. Echoing his analysis is Major General Fayez al-Doueiri of the Jordanian army, who recently spoke to TV channel Al Hadath confirming that "in Syria, Iran is creating a sister organization to Hezbollah, bringing together Shia volunteers from Iraq and Afghanistan thanks to the forces commanded by Iranian General Qasem Soleimani."

Tehran's intent is to support Assad's army, which has lost more than 200,000 men — both to death and desertions — since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. The consequences of this support are apparent in the small town of Hader.

It goes without saying that this is adding a new element to the military tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran. "Soleimani is the real director of Assad's campaign," says the IDF general. Israel's suspicion is that he is laying the foundations to double the threat in the Golan Heights — from the southern border shared with Lebanon.

Regarding the other 85% of the border, Buchris says that so far the al-Nusra Front "hasn't even fired a bullet because it's in their interests to have a safe side in the fight against Assad. But they have already said, in an unequivocal manner, that when the regime is ousted, they'll attack Israel."

Sending a message

This is a conflict that could begin tomorrow, in a week, a year, ten years, or never, but "everyone needs to be ready at all times," so the IDF performs simulated attack exercises from guerrilla groups of up to 200 militants throwing mortars with the intent to do serious damage.

"When al-Nusra attacks us, they'll be aiming to hit us really hard," says Buchris.

So, every movement beyond the border is monitored by electronic equipment, satellites and even lookout posts from the IDF"s Golan operations center at Mount Avital. Among the videos obtained, there are some that show al-Nusra collecting Israeli and Syrian mines placed during and after the Yom Kippur War. In the stills you can see a truck full of mines.

"As soon as we realized what they were doing we sent them a clear message and now they don't do it anymore," says Buchris, without specifying what this clear message was.

"If there's one thing that we know how to do is make ourselves understood by those in this region," assures Buchris, carefully choosing his words about Assad's forces. "Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in more than a hundred occasions, we were hit by shots but it was always a mistake," says the general, and therefore, Israel did not react.

The only exception was the MiGs shot down over the Golan Heights skies in late September. "They had come over the border and we're talking about something dangerous here — we had to hit it," says Buchris.

But that was an exception. Judging from what we see now, the danger in Golan isn't Assad, but the pro-Iranian guerrillas who are waiting for the first direct conflict with the Sunni jihadists.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!