Majdal Shams, occupied Golan Heights – Tanks and soldiers blanket the mountainous landscape hugging the Syrian-Israeli demilitarised zone, an area that provides a commanding panoramic view that can reach Damascus on a cloudless day.
Fierce fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition militias has steadily drifted closer to the Israeli-controlled border at the Golan Heights, causing concern among Israeli decision-makers and local residents.
Worries from Israeli officials were exacerbated when Syrian rebels attacked and briefly captured the Quinetra crossing on Thursday, the only border crossing between the two countries, before forces loyal to Assad retook the post.
As officials in Tel Aviv and Damascus watch the developments along the border, the 23,000-strong Syrian Druze community, which has lived under Israeli rule since the June 1967 War, is divided over the conflict.
“I wish I was there to act alongside the Syrian people. I am Syrian, and I want to share the weight and the pain.“
– Nazm Khater, teacher
As the bloodshed in Syria presses on, Golan Druze are finding themselves in an increasingly precarious situation that touches their daily reality.
“I wish I was there to act alongside the Syrian people,” said Nazm Khater, a 64-year-old teacher and apple farmer. “I am Syrian, and I want to share the weight and the pain.”
Although Israel and Syria have never had diplomatic relations, the borders are not totally sealed off. Syrian nationals in the Golan are permitted to cross for academic ends, religious purposes, and marriages, all of which are processes facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Many students prefer university in Syria over Israel because they receive a monthly stipend on top of free tuition. They are able to cross from the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan once per year. In 2009, 303 students and 524 religious men made the trip to Syria, according to a report by Al-Marsad Arab Human Rights Centre.
This number has plummeted because of safety concerns and the spread of violence to areas that hug the Israeli-Syrian buffer zone. “Less students are going now … there are only around 40,” Salman Fakher Al-Deen, researcher for Al-Marsad, said.
Worried for relatives
The likelihood that the Druze in Syria will be pulled entirely into the conflict has prompted residents of the Golan fear for the safety of their relatives caught in the midst of the onslaught.
The 130,000 Syrians expelled by Israel in 1967 has swelled to “433,000 displaced Golan natives,” according to Al-Marsad’s 2010 Breaking Down the Fence publication. Many of these refugees live in areas in-and-around Damascus, such as the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, which has been affected by recent violence.
Among Druze in Syria, few are willing to make a public stand against al-Assad. Historically, minorities – including the Alawites, Christians, and Kurds – have served as the primary base of support for the Ba’ath regime.
Only a handful of Druze have joined the vocal opposition. “Some – not many – mainly intellectuals speak against the regime,” said Eyal Zisser, dean of humanities at Tel Aviv University. This is also partly because of “the fear that the rise of radical Islam might endanger their position in Syria”.
Many are concerned the rebel forces have become increasingly Sunni-led, resembling the strict sectarian divides of the 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War that ended in 1990. A kidnapping exchange between fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and Druze villages in February exacerbated these fears.
Additionally, while establishing control over much of the area hugging the Syrian-side of the buffer zone in March, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters launched an attack on the Druze village of Khadr, killing several residents.
Searching for unity
Opposition supporters say the number of people coming out against Assad is growing. The disagreement about Syria, however, exposes the fragility of a small community torn between stable foreign rule and strife at home.
Villager Fakher al-Deen said some Assad supporters tried to use violence to intimidate people from speaking out against Damascus. “They tried to crash cars into us, but violence does not work here. This is a very small place.”
These incidents have been few and far between, locals stressed, and most people are dealing non-violently with their political disagreements.
“Bashar al-Assad will not fall because he’s the best governor in the world,” said Khater, the teacher, as the booming sound of shelling echoed throughout the valley across the Syrian side of the demilitarised zone. “Before the crisis, Syrians used to sleep with their doors open … it was stable.”
As the rifts grow with the protraction of fighting in their homeland, people are looking for ways to stick together during difficult times. “Many of us were in [Israeli] prison together, and we share lived history,” Khater reflected. “There is tension between the opposition and the pro-Assad [people], but this war will take a long time.”
“We might be divided on Syria, but we have a full consensus on Israel’s occupation – we’re all against it.“
– Nazm Khater, teacher
At the local high school where Khater teaches Arabic, he said the teachers are divided down the middle in their stance towards the Syrian regime. In the classrooms, the Syrian conflict is not openly discussed. “We try to keep the students united as one because they are too young to be involved in such issues.”
Some Golan Druze said they are trying to weather the effects of the conflict next door by emphasising their Syrian identity, despite their political disagreements.
“We belong to Syria no matter who wins, not to one president but to the whole country,” Khater said. “We might be divided on Syria, but we have a full consensus on Israel’s occupation – we’re all against it.”