November 15, 2016 at 3:46 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
On the border with ISIS

Golan Heights, gay news, Washington Blade

The Golan Heights looking northeast towards Syria on Nov. 15, 2016. The Syrian civil war, which is raging within a few miles of this plateau, has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 2011. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

NEAR SHA’AL, Golan Heights — Blackberry bushes and mint were growing wild along the narrow, rocky path on which the open-air jeep in which I was a passenger was driving on Tuesday morning.

Syrian army outposts that Israel bombed during the Six-Day War in 1967, landmine fields and Israeli tanks conducting drills were among the things that my fellow passengers and I saw while in the disputed Golan Heights. Mountain gazelle and migrating birds even appeared as the jeep drove up the slope.

Our jeep and several others — which resembled a U.N. convoy of sorts — stopped about a half an hour later. Lebanese villages were clearly visible on the other side of the mountains that rise above the Hula Valley in northern Israel. Portions of war-torn Syria that are under the control of the so-called Islamic State were less than 10 miles east of the area in which our jeeps had stopped and my fellow travelers and I were taking pictures, drinking tea and eating cookies.

ISIS has unfortunately become part of my reporting in recent years.

The Sunni extremist group has executed Syrian and Iraqi men who were accused of sodomy by throwing them from tall buildings. Lebanese activists have told me that ISIS has burned men alive they suspected were gay and even hanged a transgender Syrian woman by her breasts. Ayaz Shalal, a human rights activist in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, has worked with Yazidi women who were raped by ISIS militants after they killed their husbands.

The gunman who killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 12 pledged his allegiance to ISIS, even though there is no evidence to suggest it ordered him to carry out the massacre. President-elect Trump in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history reiterated his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country.

Turkish officials have accused ISIS of carrying out three suicide bombings at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on June 28 that killed 44 people and left more than 100 others injured. My partner and I flew through the same airport last Thursday while en route to Israel.

Staffers with A Wider Bridge, which describes itself as an “LGBTQ advocacy group building connections between the Israeli and North American LGBTQ communities,” have told me they have seen ISIS flags flying above Syrian villages during previous trips to the Golan Heights.

Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, last November claimed ISIS militants attacked its members with a car bomb near Quneitra, a Syrian municipality in the portion of the Golan Heights that is not under Israeli control. ARA News, an independent Syrian news agency, reported ISIS militants in September killed a prominent rebel leader in the country’s Daraa Governorate, which is roughly 40 miles southeast of the Golan Heights.

Syria’s civil war began in March 2011 after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime brutally cracked down on protesters in the city of Daraa. The conflict has left more than 200,000 people dead and prompted millions of Syrians to flee to Lebanon, Turkey and other countries.

I did not see any ISIS flags on Tuesday while in the Golan Heights because Syria was not visible. The Israeli Defense Forces and their tanks that were in the area provided a sense of security. The fact that ISIS controls territory that was a few miles away, however, was certainly unsettling.

Editor’s note: Michael K. Lavers is currently in Israel with A Wider Bridge. He will be reporting from the country through Nov. 22.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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