Perils on and off piste for Israel's skiers: Dodging kamikaze sportsmen and avoiding a military zone add to the dangers on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, writes Sarah Helm

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The Independent Online
LOOKING OUT over the mist- shrouded slopes, David Bar El, a ski instructor in winter (a fruit- grower in summer) despaired about the technique and piste etiquette of Israeli skiers.

There is, he says, a lack of finesse. 'The problem is that every Israeli guy has been a fighter. Now he thinks he understands everything. When he comes here he won't listen to what anyone tells him. He thinks he's still fighting on the piste and there are no rules. He just picks up his skis and goes to the top of the mountain. The result is a lot of kamikazes.'

Out on the black run, a turquoise-clad figure crashed through the blizzard and became bogged down. Immobilised, Gad, 23, an engineering student, boasted that, weather permitting, he often skis on Mount Hermon and water-skis on the Sea of Galilee in the same day. 'You have to move fast to do that,' he said, hurtling off into the path of a young soldier skiing while carrying two poles and an M-16 rifle.

The kamikazes are by no means the only danger on the slopes of Mount Hermon on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights which overlooks Lebanon to the north and Syria to the east. The ski area is in a military zone. Just 30km (18 1/2 miles) from Damascus, it is ringed by fencing and closed areas, policed by an Israeli ski patrol.

Skiers who go too far off piste are herded back by soldiers watching for Syrian infiltrators or Kat yusha rocket attacks from Lebanon. But the soldiers here admit it is generally a quiet posting. 'There's really nothing to do. But it's better than Gaza,' admitted a bored architecture student, doing his one month's reserve duty outside the kosher ski restaurant.

The Mount Hermon ski area was built by members of a Moshav Neve Atif, a communal village, three years after the 1967 Six Day War when Israelis seized the Golan Heights from Syria. Many of those who work here are Druze Arabs, who have been forced to live under Israeli rule since their Golan villages, orginally in Syria, were effectively annexed by Israel in 1981. About 80,000 Israelis come to ski here each year: yuppies from Tel Aviv in psychedelic ski-suits, kibbutzniks in jeans and leather jackets, and even the ultra-orthodox seem to be giving it a go, sporting woolly black ear muffs on top of their yarmulkas. Now, however, the resort's days in Israel may be numbered. If peace is made with Damascus, the slopes will be returned to Syrian hands.

The skiers of Hermon have mixed views about the prospect. 'No Israeli would feel safe skiing with Arabs. I don't think any Israeli will come back,' said Tani Navaro, 21, an air hostess.

'This is the 'eye of Israel'. I don't believe it will ever be returned,' said a young army officer.

But others predict new Arab- Israel understanding will be bashed out on the piste. 'All of us went throught a depressing period when we first heard the Golan might be given back. But we all want peace,' said Patrica Bendor from Clapham in London, who married an Israeli and converted to Judaism in 1973, and now works in the ski shop. And those from the Moshav, while fearful of the future, believe their efforts in building the resort have contributed to an atmosphere in which peace is possible.

'I fought in the Six Day War. But I and others came here afterwards to show we could build a civilian life. If we hadn't done this the world would never have known that Israel could live in peace,' Mr Bar El said.

WASHINGTON - Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, voiced concern yesterday that his country was near a 'Yugoslavia-like situation' and said Israel is ready to compromise on territory to bring peace with the Palestinians, Reuter reports.

'We are ready to let the Palestinians run their own life in their own environment, have a self-government, and we would like to see them not just neighbours but happy neighbours and successful neighbours,' he said.

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