Golan Heights Watchful of Syria Fighting Across Border

As the violence spins out of control around Syria, Israel is stepping up security measures along the ceasefire line with its northern neighbor. Israeli troops are on high alert. And the military is reinforcing the fence that divides Syria from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

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Israel is worried that refugees — or militants — might try to cross the dividing line into the Golan. Meanwhile, much of the local population in the Golan Heights is watching events in Syria with deep anxiety for different reasons altogether.

White-haired, 58 year-old Sameh Ayoub has been riveted by the news from Syria for months. He spent much of his youth in Damascus, before moving back to his parents' home village of Majdel Shams here in the Golan Heights. Ayoub said it's been heart wrenching to see his national homeland descend into bloody chaos. And what has been more disturbing, he said, is that this week, he has literally been able to hear the fighting going on across the ceasefire line. He knows some of the residents there personally.

Before 1967, when Israel took control of the Golan Heights, people in the villages just across the ceasefire line were neighbors with Majdel Shams. Now, "we just dream about the children, about the families," Ayoub said. "Why? What they do?"

Like many of the Druze Arabs living on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line, Ayoub thinks of himself as Syrian through and through. But he is disgusted with the violence that the Syrian government has unleashed on its own people. Standing on the roof of his home, pointing toward Syria, Ayoub said it is disturbingly ironic how the Syrian government has been telling anyone who would listen about Israel's destruction of the Syrian village of Quneitra after the 1973 war.

"Now, how many villages and towns [have been] damaged," Ayoub said, "by the [Syrian] regime without any [mercy]?"

Ayoub has relatives still living in Damascus, including his brother. They stay in touch through Skype and email, but Ayoub said they try to be careful about what they say, because they're never sure who might be listening. But Ayoub told me that he has no doubt about who the good guys are in this conflict. They are the rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad regime, he said.

But things are complicated here. This tight-knit community of about 20,000 Arab Druze living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is bitterly divided over what is happening in Syria.

A local pharmacist, Gandi Kalouni told me that what is going on in Syria right now is a regional war between the government of Bashar Al-Assad and foreign-funded terrorists allied with Al Qaeda.

"Wait and see who will go," Kalouni told me from behind the counter of his drug store. "Sarkozy in France is gone, same with Berlusconi in Italy. Obama will soon be gone too," he said. "But Assad will stay in power because the people of Syria want him to."

Every Friday, members of the Druze community in the Golan have been coming out to show their support — for and against — the Syrian revolution. Last week, rivals groups face off against each other in a confrontation.

So far, there have only been a few violent incidents between opposing groups in the Golan. But human rights activist Salman Fakheraldeen said he is worried about things getting out of hand.

"It's a very small number of people in the Golan," Fakheraldeen said during an interview at his office. "Most of us are relatives."

The name of the game here, Fakheraldeen said, "is to educate ourselves to accept others while they are different."

Fakheraldeen said the Syrian community in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights might be physically cut off from events in Syria. But the conflict has already infected the population here. Now, he said, people need to come together to keep things from getting worse.

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    Majdel Shams is the largest Druze village in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights. A military road (cuts across center of photo) with a barbed-wire fence is the separation line with Syria. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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    Sameh Ayoub grew up in Damascus, Syria. He is watching events in Syria from his home in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, just across the ceasefire line with Syria. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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    Salman Fakheraldeen hopes Bashar al-Assad falls and Syria gets a better government. (Photo: Matthew Bell)