x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Druze in Golan Heights conflicted over Syrian civil war

The civil war in Syria has strained communities across Syria¿s borders, in Lebanon, Turkey and for the 20,000 Druze living in the Golan Heights.

Druze in the the the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights with Syrian flags and a picture of Bashar al-Assad during a rally in April. Jack Guez / AFP
Druze in the the the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights with Syrian flags and a picture of Bashar al-Assad during a rally in April. Jack Guez / AFP

GOLAN HEIGHTS // Until late spring, fear kept Samira Madah from showing her solidarity with the Syrian opposition.

Small protests against Bashar Al Assad had gathered pace in Majdal Shams, a town of 10,000 Druze Arabs who consider themselves Syrian but live under Israeli rule in the Golan Heights. Samira, 37, had wanted to join in, but her father was against it.

"He believed the regime wouldn't fall and that it would retaliate against us for defying it," she says. "My father told me: 'It's not our fight'."

By May, television images of the bloodshed proved too much and Saira joined the demonstrations. "I couldn't sit back and watch the killing any more," she says.

Her decision underscores how the civil war has strained communities across Syria's borders, in Lebanon, Turkey and for the 20,000 Druze living in the Golan Heights.

Fathers and sons here have fallen out over the uprising, some speak of intimidation by thugs loyal to Mr Al Assad - the lawless militias known as Shabiha - and supporters of the president have thrown eggs at regime critics during demonstrations.

For many in the farming villages of the Golan, the issue is not whether to rally around Mr Al Assad or embrace his enemies. It is, they say, a combination of concern about what the Syrian president's forces could do to loved ones in Syria, and uncertainty over what could replace his government. In Syria, the 700,000 Druze form part of a patchwork of minorities who have also not fully embraced the uprising.

"If the extremist Muslims take over, we will be thrown back a thousand years," said Gandi Kahloni, 53, a pharmacist in Majdal Shams who does not support the rebels.

"We need a progressive government in Syria."

The sentiment also in some ways stems from the experience of the Golan's four Druze communities in their relationship with Israel.

Druze in the Golan Heights speak in terms of "resisting" Israeli control, not unlike Palestinians in the territories of East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip that Israel also occupies. It captured the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau of apple and cherry orchards and abundant water, from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and then built about 30 settlements housing 18,000 Jews.

In a move not recognised internationally, Tel Aviv annexed the area in 1981.

But Druze here also receive benefits from the state, study at Israeli universities and work in the Jewish settlements. Businesses appear to be flourishing, thanks in part to Israeli tourists.

However, many in Majdal Shams hope one day to be reunified with Syria. Most have rejected offers of Israeli citizenship, fearing reprisals against family members in Syria. Many of the young people choose to study at Syrian universities.

Several Israeli governments have tried to negotiate control over the Golan Heights with Syria in exchange for a peace deal, which has buoyed hopes of the area falling under Damascus's control.

"We are Syrian and we belong in Syria," said Salman Fakherdeen, a researcher at Al Marsad, the Arab Centre for Human Rights in the Golan.

He listed a litany of grievances against Israeli control of the Golan. Residents complain of unfair building restrictions and restricted access to water for agriculture compared with neighbouring Jewish communities.

He and others also bitterly recall Israeli policies during the 1967 war and its aftermath. The vast majority of Arabs living in the Golan Heights either fled or were forced out, reducing their population at the time from 130,000 to less than 7,000 after the war.

That separated thousands of families. In some cases, the ceasefire line split neighbourhoods, with mines planted by both Israel and Syria. Before the internet era, residents of Majdal Shams used to communicate by bullhorn with neighbours only metres away on the Syrian side.

Some activists express concern that the younger generation may not be as willing to demand a return to Syrian control. They have grown up speaking Hebrew and interacting with Israelis, and uncertainty of living under Syrian rule may give them pause, said Fawzi Abu Jabal, public relations director at Golan for Development, a local NGO.

"The youth are more exposed to the media, the internet, and they have relations with Israelis," said Mr Jabal, who spent a decade in jail for spying on Israel for Syria.

He questioned whether younger Druze would be as willing to oppose Israel as he did.

But for Samira Madah and fellow activists, the Golan Heights will always remain Syrian. The real issue is opposing the repression in her ancestral homeland, she says.

"Many people support the opposition, but they aren't brave enough to come out in public. But people will eventually discover, as I did, that we can support our people."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

Druze facts

• Israel is home to about 100,000 Druze who have taken citizenship. They serve in Israel’s military and have been elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

• In 1957, Israel designated them a distinct ethnic minority.

• The approximately 20,000 Druze in the Golan Heights have largely rejected offers of Israeli citizenship and have at times engaged in low-level resistance to Israeli rule. They see themselves as Syrian nationals living under Israeli occupation since Israel captured the area during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Their relations with Israel, however, are cordial compared with Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

• There are four Druze communities in the Golan: Majdal Shams, Buqata, Masada and Ein Qinya. Largely agricultural, they farm apples and cherries.