October 3, 2007

Israeli beekeeper Efraim Ezov tends to his bee hives on Mt. Hermon. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

From a dry riverbed on this frontier mountain, under a fortified outpost where Israeli troops peer out at their Syrian enemies, Efraim Ezov sends his Israeli honeybees on daily sorties into Syrian airspace

The result – dark, herb-flavored and reputed to enhance virility – is a unique honey from two countries that have been waging hot and cold war for six decades.

“Borders are a human system. Bees have no borders,” said Ezov, wearing a white protective suit and mask. The air was thick with yellow-black insects buzzing between their wooden hives in Israeli-controlled territory and the pollen-rich flowers across the front line, just 500 yards away and sealed to human traffic.

As the 50-year-old beekeeper and an assistant puttered among their hives within sight of Syria, tensions between the two countries were peaking because of a very different Israeli incursion into Syrian airspace.

In this latest flare-up, Israeli fighter jets attacked a target in Syria on Sept. 6, according to Syrian officials, who condemned the strike while remaining curiously vague about its details. Israel has not commented on the mysterious incident, leaving foreign media to report various versions – that the planes destroyed a North Korean nuclear installation in Syria, attacked an arms shipment to Hizbullah guerrillas, practiced a strike against Iran or tested Syria’s air defenses.

None of that tension was evident several days later at Mount Hermon, where Israeli and Syrian forces face each other.

The mountain is divided among Syria, Lebanon and the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast War. The two armies fought again in 1973, and since then the front has been peaceful.

Ezov chose Mount Hermon for his hives because of the distance from human settlement and agriculture, with its pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and because the mountain is home to about 250 species of wild plants that exist nowhere else. He says pollen from all of those plants together gives his honey its distinctive taste and purity.

The key ingredient is ferula hermonis, a flower known locally as zallouh. It was familiar to the doctors of ancient Greece and the Islamic world for its effectiveness in improving libido and fertility, according to Stephen Fulder, an Israeli biochemist and pharmacologist who specializes in herbal medicine.

But although preliminary studies have shown some success with rodents, no studies have been carried out on humans and there is nothing conclusive to back up zallouh’s reputation, he said.

That has not dampened the plant’s popularity, especially in Lebanon, where it is dubbed “Lebanese Viagra.”

Zallouh presents a problem for Israelis, because it exists only on the Syrian and Lebanese sections of Mount Hermon.

It was only because of the 1973 Mideast War that Avinoam Danin, one of Israel’s foremost experts on local flora, got to see zallouh plants.

The war left Israeli forces briefly in control of the Syrian part of Mount Hermon until an armistice was signed. Danin said he and colleagues got permission from the army to make a rare field trip to the Syrian slopes, photographing zallouh plants and bringing samples before the territory – and its zallouh – reverted to Syrian control. But bees can range more than half a mile from their hives, frontiers notwithstanding, and in the summer blossoming season Ezov’s 1.5 million bees buzz over the Syrian border and gather zallouh pollen.

Ezov then markets the product in Israel for $7 per one-pound jar under the name “Galilee Aroma Honey.”

“Many people believe zallouh increases sexual abilities,” said 60-year-old Hussein Aghmia, an Israeli Arab customer for Ezov’s honey who prides himself on being a maven of local vegetation and its healing properties.

“Since ancient times, Hermon honey has been known as the best there is, and this honey is A-league,” he said.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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