Israeli ad campaign profiles Golan cowboy

The Baltimore Sun

MEROM GOLAN RANCH, Golan Heights -- Avshalom Ferstman certainly looks the part. Sporting an Australian-style bush hat, a gun in a holster, a big-buckled belt on his jeans and a plaid shirt, the man with the salt-and-pepper beard is a picture-perfect cowboy.

Ferstman, 40, who herds cattle for a living, was featured in a recent Israeli advertising campaign in the United States inviting tourists to visit Israel on its 60th birthday this year.

He was one of several Israelis from different walks of life profiled in the ads, intended to show that there is more to Israel than the Middle East conflict that often dominates news from this troubled region.

Yet Ferstman lives not in Israel proper, but in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the brief 1967 Middle East war.

The fate of the territory, which the Syrians want returned, has been the main point of dispute between the two countries and the subject of recent diplomatic feelers on resuming negotiations on an exchange of land for peace.

Still, the prospect of revived talks about the Golan appears distant, especially when viewed from the rolling pastureland of this rugged basalt expanse that overlooks part of northern Israel.

Riding the range here among old minefields, army training zones and ruins of abandoned Syrian villages, Ferstman and fellow ranchers show little concern over the latest flurry of talk about the possible return of the area to Syria.

"We live here, this is our home, and I can't worry about it every time it comes up," Ferstman said. "You have to just live your life the best you can."

Ferstman and a partner look after about 1,000 head of beef cattle for Kibbutz Merom Golan and have their own herd of 100 closer to their settlement of Had-Ness.

"I followed the cows to the Golan," said Ferstman, who was offered a job of herding cattle in the area 15 years ago after doing similar work at a kibbutz in Israel's Jordan Valley.

The Golan has the most extensive cattle-grazing areas available for Israeli ranchers, so it made perfect sense to Ferstman to relocate there, where he now lives with his wife and two sons.

"I like being close to nature, working with the animals, the quiet," Ferstman said.

"You're by yourself most of the day."

He herds cattle on horseback, in summer heat and winter rains, and much of the day is taken up with mending fences, treating cows and their calves, and moving cattle from one grazing area to another.

But there are unusual challenges for cowboys on the Golan, aside from the more standard threats of wolves and cattle rustlers.

Army tanks on maneuvers sometimes flatten fences, allowing cows to wander into minefields, where some have been killed by explosions.

Military training takes place near pastureland, and army units have to coordinate their movements with the ranchers.

Riding among the cows as gunfire rattled and smoke rose in the distance from one of the periodic army exercises, Ferstman recalled one close call: A tank shell once hit a target about 200 yards from where he was checking a cattle fence, sending his horse bolting in fear.

Ferstman said the gun on his hip was for self-defense: to ward off cattle thieves, shoot animals preying on his flock and respond in the unlikely event of a terrorist attack.

Yet despite the challenges, the overall pace of life is slower, and the bonds of help and friendship between people stronger, than in Israel's urban centers, Ferstman said.

"It's a catastrophe over there: the congestion, the noise, the impatience, the rat race," he said. "I live here in a bubble, and when I travel to the center of the country, I bless the day I came up here."

Sweeping across the pasture, a breeze ruffled the yellow fields of wild wheat as storks flew overhead.

Ferstman said he first got the urge to be a cowboy as a youngster watching TV westerns with his father.

There was nothing wrong, he added, with Israel's tourism ministry promoting the country through the cowboys of the Golan, even though the area is generally viewed abroad as occupied territory.

"It's completely legitimate as long as there are Israelis working and making their living here," he said.

"This is ours, and we can be proud of it."

Dotted with more than 30 Israeli settlements that have fruit orchards, factories, and a world-class winery, the Golan was annexed by Israel in 1981.

Many Israelis have come to see the scenic region as an integral part of their country, which after 60 years of conflict still does not have its borders set by internationally recognized agreements.

Yet the possibility that the 20,000 Golan settlers could someday be evacuated under the terms of a peace accord with Syria does come up in conversations from time to time, Ferstman and other ranchers said.

The issue came up again recently after Syria said that it had been told by Turkish mediators that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has expressed readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal

That assertion has neither been confirmed nor denied by Israeli spokesmen.

Ferstman says that if push ever came to shove, he would abide by an evacuation order without resisting, though with deep sadness, just as he reported for duty two years ago as an army reservist in Israel's war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

"If my country calls me to leave, I'll go, just like I went to Lebanon," he said.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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