Quneitra, Golan Heights, Syria

Quneitra was once a bustling town in the Golan Heights and southwestern Syria's administrative capital with a population of 37,000. The word Quneitra derives from Qantara, or 'bridge', between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. Known for its abundant water resources, it has been continuously inhabited since the Stone Age. Over the millennia, many peoples, including Arameans, Assyrians, Caldeans, Persians, Greeks, and Arabs have occupied it. St. Paul, it is said, passed through Quneitra on his way from Damascus to Jerusalem.

In 1967, during the six-day war, Israel captured Quneitra. It then became a site of many battles but, except for a brief interlude, remained in Israeli hands until 1974, when a UN-brokered agreement led to an Israeli pullback. Before withdrawing, however, Quneitra was evacuated and systematically destroyed by the Israeli army (based on eyewitness accounts; UN General Assembly resolution 3240 in 1974 condemned Israel's role in its destruction. Israel disputes this account). Many prominent Western reporters, agreeing with the UN and Syrian version of events, saw this as nothing short of an act of wanton brutality — a whole town methodically ransacked, dynamited, and bulldozed.

Quneitra lies undisturbed ever since, a ghost town riddled with land mines, an open-air museum of Middle-Eastern wars (Syria now shows it off as proof of Israeli malice). Church domes and minarets, blackened and broken, rise above the wasteland. Do these sights, I wondered, ever infuriate native sons into seeking compensation in kind? Behind the town, a barbed-wire fence marks the border with the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Quneitra now falls within the UN-patrolled demilitarized zone. A UN peacekeeper accompanies all visitors to Quneitra who must first obtain a visitation permit from the Syrian government. Here are some scenes from my visit on a rain-drenched afternoon in Feb 2001. (Watch video from Quneitra; post/read visitor comments)

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