Conflict

Druze in the Golan Heights have long been 'on the fence' between Syria and Israel. Syria's civil war has changed things.

Members of the Druze community watch the fighting in Syria's civil war, next to the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams, June 16, 2015.

Members of the Druze community watch the fighting in Syria's civil war, next to the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams, June 16, 2015.

Credit:

Baz Ratner/Reuters

Kifach Juary raises his mug of cold beer in an exaggerated toast. “Being a Druze is a profession at which we Druze excel.”

Dressed in a T-shirt and cargo shorts, Juary, 50, sits on the fashionable porch of the Why? bar in downtown Majdal Shams, one of four Druze villages in the Golan Heights in Israel’s far north. The thuds of shelling from within Syria, just over a mile away, can be heard clearly.

“The Druze have no borders,” he continues. “We are connected to our homes but have no nation. Our fate is never in our own hands. We adapt.”

They have had to adapt to survive. The Druze, an ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural and political minority, are neither Muslim, Jew, nor Christian. An 11th-century offshoot of Ismailism, their secret beliefs are known only to select elders.

Now, as Druze across the border in Syria are caught in a flashpoint on the edge of the country’s six-year civil war, their neighbors and relatives in the Golan are continuing to adapt. Some Golan Druze are reaffirming their historical and in many cases, familial ties to Syria, while others are drawing closer to an Israel that, after years of caution, may begin to intervene in the Syrian conflict at its door. Many Druze remain, as they long have, firmly on the fence.

Members of the Druze community look at their friends and relatives on the Syrian side of the border, during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams on the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, Feb. 14, 2014. 

Credit:

Baz Ratner/Reuters

Worldwide, there are about 1 million Druze; most of them have lived for centuries in the area where Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet. Historically, they have no national aspirations and develop loyalties to the countries in which they find themselves living — and over the past century, as wars and colonial powers apportioned the area into different countries, they have had to change their loyalties frequently. The British and French Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the region in 1916, splitting the Druze between what became Lebanon and Syria. In 1948, the Druze population was split again, between those living in the areas that became the state of Israel and those in Lebanon and Syria.

“My grandfather would say that the state of Israel will eventually disappear, just as other conquerors have disappeared."

In accordance with their custom, those in Israel quickly accepted Israeli rule; those who remained in Syria developed loyalties to the Syrian government. Then, when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, the Druze community was split yet again — between those in Israeli-captured territory and those who lived in the areas that remained Syrian.

Today, there are about 140,000 Druze in Israel, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study. About 26,500 Druze live in the Golan Heights, concentrated in four villages of Majdal Shams, Buq’ata, Masadeh, and Ein Qiniyye, all of which are only a few miles — in some places only a few yards — from the Syrian border. 

The Druze in Israel are full citizens and the majority of Druze men serve in the Israeli army, many as high-ranking career officers. In contrast, and in a break with their tradition, few Druze in the Golan Heights accepted the offer of citizenship when Israel formally annexed the area in 1981. According to data provided to PRI by the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority, an average of about 11 Golan Druze requested Israeli citizenship each year between 2000 and 2014.

For most, the reasons for maintaining their loyalty to Syria were pragmatic rather than ideological. “My grandfather would say that the state of Israel will eventually disappear, just as other conquerors have disappeared,” Juary says. They were also concerned, he explains, that Israel might return the Golan to Syria, as it returned the Sinai Peninsula captured in 1967 to Egypt in 1978 and has discussed land swaps with the Palestinians, so any signs of disloyalty to the totalitarian Syrian regime could be dangerous in the future.

Yet, Israel offered economic and cultural prospects. Over time, many Druze chose to study, work and live in Israel. They invested in agriculture, tourism, especially for Israelis, and education. Their apple and cherry crops are particularly lucrative. The Israeli government contributed funds for schools and teachers, and today, Majdal Shams’s 2,700 schoolchildren learn Arabic, Hebrew and English from the first grade and have among the highest university matriculation rates in Israel.

Members of the Druze community hold Syrian flags during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, Feb. 14, 2013.

Credit:

Baz Ratner/Reuters

And so, caught between the Syrian threat and Israeli opportunities, the Druze remained, as they commonly describe themselves, “on the fence.” The situation suited both Israel and Syria: Israel was satisfied that, even without assuming citizenship, the Druze in the Golan Heights would remain quiet and provide a buffer with Syria, while Syria could boast that the Druze remained loyal to Syria and the Assad regime. 

A tacit agreement between Israel and Syria allowed the Druze to export their apple crops to Syria; the Syrian regime paid above-market prices for the opportunity to market those apples in the Gulf states. Facilitated by the Red Cross, hundreds of Druze students crossed the border into Syria and studied in Damascus, especially medicine, then returned to Israel and found jobs in the Israeli medical system. Families would regularly gather at the “Yelling Hill,” just to the east of Majdal Shams, to exchange, through bullhorns, family news and gossip with their relatives in the village of Khader, a loyal Syrian outpost, only a few miles away. Since the Druze faith is strongly opposed to marriages outside of the community, Syrian Druze women married Druze men from the Golan, and Israel granted them residency status — but few, if any, Druze from the Golan moved permanently to Syria.

Today, in the Golan’s Druze villages, and especially Majdal Shams, you can find upscale restaurants serving ceviche, carpaccio and alcohol to hipster customers. The menus are in Hebrew and English, less often in Arabic. Storefronts and signs are in both Hebrew and Arabic, but some are only Hebrew. And families don’t have to yell across the Syrian border to keep in touch — they use Skype and WhatsApp.

Yet, alongside what some consider the gradual “Israelization” of their culture, the Golan Druze community continued to demonstrate their loyalty to Syria. When Israel first offered citizenship to the Druze, Druze religious leaders ruled that the community should excommunicate anyone who accepted citizenship or allied themselves with Israel — although, the ruling was enforced for only a few years, and even then only rarely, and today isn’t even spoken about. Annually, on the Syrian national holiday, the community would organize a demonstration in Majdal Shams, complete with Syrian flags and pro-Syrian nationalist speeches.

Juary calls the demonstrations of loyalty “a game.”

“Everyone — even the Israeli authorities — knew that those demonstrations were just an act,” says Juary derisively. “They were a way to please the Syrian regime — just in case.”

Workers pack freshly harvested apples at a factory near Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, Oct. 11, 2012.

Credit:

Ammar Awad/Reuters

A minority took Israeli citizenship as an expression of the traditional Druze adaptation to the powers that be. That’s how Samer Abu-Awaad, 41, a teacher from Buq’ata, explains his decision, as he walks through his apple and cherry trees.

“I am an Israeli citizen because I live here, and Israel has given me opportunities,” he says. “But above all, I am a Druze, and I want to stay on my land, with my orchards, my family and my community.”

For some, choosing to accept Israeli citizenship was merely a pragmatic decision. Without Israeli citizenship, the Druze of the Golan Heights have no passport. Israel issues only a laissez-passer that reads, “Citizenship: Undefined.”

“I want to travel and see the world,” says Mona, who studied medicine in Damascus and now works in an Israeli hospital. Mona, who took Israeli citizenship in 2015, asked not to use her full name, in deference to her grandfather, who remains a Syrian loyalist. “But few countries accept the laissez-passer.” She notes that a bar not far from Why? is called, “Undefined.” “It’s a great bar,” she says, “but 'undefined' isn’t a great way to live.”

Others, mostly the older generation, have maintained their loyalty to Syria — like Dr. Wassaf Khatar. His clinic is located in the center of Majdal Shams, only a few feet from a large, impressive statue of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, a Druze nobleman who led the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 against European mandatory rule. The offices are filled with Syrian emblems and decorations, and two TVs are tuned to Syrian stations.

“I will never accept Israeli citizenship,” Khatar, 59, declares belligerently. “I am a Syrian, born to generations of Syrians.”

Khatar was the first physician in the Golan Heights to work with an Israeli HMO, but he insists that the Heights are occupied territory. “Israel has no right to be here, not morally and not according to international law.”

If there were a peace agreement in which the Golan remained part of Israel, would he move to Syria? “There can be no such agreement,” he responds. “No one has the right to give up our birthright as Syrians. And why should I move from my own land?”

Dr. Wassaf Khatar at his office in Majdal Shams. He remains loyal to Syria.

Credit:

Eetta Prince-Gibson/PRI

 

 The majority of Golan Druze continued to hedge their bets, enjoying the best of both worlds, connected to the Druze communities in both Israel and Syria. But as the brutal civil war in Syria continued and evolved from a civil war to a proxy war, from President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent imminent fall to his regained power thanks to Russia and Israel’s archenemy, Iran, from secular rebels to fanatic jihadis — the perch on the fence became increasingly uncomfortable. 

In 2015, 103 Druze from the Golan asked for and received Israeli citizenship — compared to the average of 11 per year in the previous decade and a half. In 2016, that number jumped to 183, and the trend is continuing in 2017.

“The war in Syria made me think about my identity. I am Druze, but my culture is Israeli,” says Mona. “I realized it was time to jump off the fence, and not just for the practical reasons. So I jumped to the west, to Israel, where I have more opportunities and freedom as a woman. To the east, in Syria, there is fire, destruction and a murderous dictator who uses chemical weapons against his own people. The decision was a no-brainer.”

At the same time, the Druze are also deeply concerned for the relatives in Syria. Radical Islamist groups like the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and other Sunni groups regard the Druze as heretics; in 2015, the Nusra Front massacred 23 Druze, including children, about a mile and a half away from Majdal Shams.

Since the war broke out, Israel has maintained a cautious position. Initially, Israel was hopeful that Syrian rebels, especially the Free Syrian Army, would take over the country and depose Assad and his regime. In June 2016, Israel’s Northern Command established Operation Good Neighbor to provide medicine, food and blankets to Syrian citizens and evacuating wounded civilians to Israeli hospitals. According to foreign media reports, Israel has also provided weapons and ammunition to rebels.

Officially, Israel has no boots on the ground in Syria. But occasionally, rockets — usually in error, as part of the fighting between the rebels and pro-Assad forces — do land in Israel and the Israeli response is swift. In late October, five projectiles landed in the Golan Heights over a period of a few days. No one was hurt and no damage was caused, as the shells landed in open areas, although alarms were sounded throughout the area. Israel responded with additional bombing of three Syrian artillery vehicles.

“The war in Syria made me think about my identity. I am Druze, but my culture is Israeli. I realized it was time to jump off the fence, and not just for the practical reasons. So I jumped to the west, to Israel, where I have more opportunities and freedom as a woman. To the east, in Syria, there is fire, destruction and a murderous dictator who uses chemical weapons against his own people. The decision was a no-brainer.”

However, in the past few months, the war around Khader, the home of many of the Golan Druze’s relatives, has become a strategic battleground between Assad’s forces, the Nusra Front and the local Druze militias, who are historically pro-Assad but whose current loyalties, in the midst of the vicious fighting, are primarily to their own people.

On Nov. 3, the Nusra Front appeared to be closing in on Khader. They set off a car bomb that killed nine people and wounded 23, most of them Syrian army soldiers and local residents, including relatives of residents of the Golan, and fighting broke out within the village.

“We started getting phone calls from our families in Khader,” Abu-Awaad says. “They were begging us to come and save them.”

Druze in the Golan Heights gather to contact their relatives across the border in Syria, Nov. 4, 2017. 

Credit:

Ammar Awad/Reuters

 

Hundreds of Druze men gathered on the “Yelling Hill” in Majdal Shams. A few managed to break through the fence that marks the border, intending to join their fellow Druze in Khader in the fight for their village, but the Israeli army pulled them back.

In an effort to warn the Nusra Front that they should pull back, and to reassure the Druze in the Golan, the Israeli military issued a statement that it is “ready to help the villagers and prevent harm to or an occupation of the village, out of a commitment to the Druze community.” 

Israeli analysts argue it’s unlikely that Israel actually intends to send its own soldiers to fight and die in Syria — and especially not for a village that has historically been a strong supporter of Assad. It would be more likely to use planes, tanks or artillery to deter the Nusra Front locally, both to prevent a massacre of the Druze village and to prevent the radical group from sitting so close to its border. Yet the statement had the desired effect: The Nusra Front retreated, the fighting stopped and Majdal Shams and the other villages calmed down.

“We don’t know what will be. The Nusra Front may have retreated, but I don’t believe that they won’t try to come back,” Abu-Awaad says. “Khader is a strategic point. Once again, the Druze are caught in other people’s wars. I can only pray that Israel will not allow our people to be massacred.”

Despite his differences with Abu-Awaad, Khatar, too, is worried about his own people. He sketches out an elaborate diagram of the world, with vertical and horizontal axes that meet in Syria. “Syria is the heart of the universe. Iraq, Iran, the US, China, Russia, Israel — all of them want to control Syria because whoever controls Syria controls the routes to the rest of the world. The United States and Israel are fighting against the Syrians for their own needs, as they always do, causing trouble throughout the world.

“I am a doctor, and I have sworn to protect human life. But if anyone wants to destroy my country, I will not hesitate,” he says, pounding his desk. “I will go and fight. We are all Druze.”

In Conflict & JusticeConflictPoliticsGlobal PoliticsGlobal Security.

Tagged: KhaderIsraelSyriaGolan Heights.