Israeli security forces return fire after two rockets allegedly fired from Syria hit region that has become flash point.
Beirut, Lebanon – When news broke that Islamist-led opposition fighters, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, were besieging the Druze village of Hadar in southern Syria, a stone’s throw away from the ceasefire line separating Syria’s Golan Heights from the Israeli-occupied one, Druze inside the occupied territories took to the streets to protest the lack of action being taken by Israel to protect the village.
Faced with increasing pressure from both the media and Druze community leaders calling for government intervention in the Golan, Israel’s army chief vowed to prevent the massacre of Syrian refugees on its border. While direct military intervention was ruled out, the Israeli government assured that it would protect the Druze living in Syria.
Yet at the same time, Israel has been providing assistance to Syrian opposition fighters.
Numerous reports by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the UN contingent based in the Golan Heights, have noted the movement of fighters – both wounded and healthy – as well as cargo and other equipment across the fence, through liaisons with the Israeli army.
This indicates that Israel is actively working with the same opposition groups that are currently launching attacks on the Druze communities.
Israel is home to approximately 130,000 Druze, of whom around 20,000 reside in the occupied Golan Heights.
Over the past few years, in an attempt to install a “security belt” along its northern border, Israel has tried to lure several different groups to its side: offering assistance to Syrian opposition fighters on the one hand, while offering protection to the Druze on the other.
But analysts say that recent events have caused this policy to unravel.
The situation for Druze communities in Syria has worsened recently. In early June, 20 Druze were massacred at the hands of Nusra Front fighters in Idlib. Then came the advance of ISIL and affiliated groups into the east of Sweida, home to the largest Druze population in Syria. Meanwhile, opposition groups led by Nusra Front advanced to the west of Sweida.
It all came to a head for the Druze residing in the occupied Golan Heights with the siege on Hadar two weeks ago.
Enraged that the Israeli army was still providing medical assistance to fighters involved in attacks on the Druze across the border, residents of the occupied Golan Heights stormed an Israeli military field hospital in the area where they suspected the Israeli army of treating wounded Syrian opposition fighters, including those belonging to Nusra Front.
Tensions boiled over on June 22 when Druze residents in Horfish in Israel stopped an ambulance and demanded to know whether the wounded inside were fighters involved in the assault on Druze areas in Syria.
Later that evening in Majdal Shams, in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, local residents besieged an Israeli army ambulance carrying two wounded Syrian fighters, dragging them out of the vehicle and beating them both severely, one of them to death.
In a dawn raid on June 24, Israel arrested at least nine Druze residents in connection with the attack, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced as a “lynching“.
The vast majority of Golan residents have rejected Israeli citizenship, living under Israeli occupation since it seized 1,200sq km of land from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. The annexation of the Golan Heights has not been recognised by the international community.
Syria’s Druze community has for the most part remained neutral throughout the ongoing conflict, although tensions have flared over issues such as army conscription, with Druze preferring to fight in their own areas rather than elsewhere in the country.
They have also outright rejected any assistance from Israel, preferring to remain under the Syrian government’s wing rather than seek help from a country they see as aiding the rebels.
Several Druze sources in Sweida told Al Jazeera that they refuse to be part of Israel’s project in the region.
“We know what the Israelis are doing with the militants, how they are helping them, and we don’t need their help,” said a political activist in the area who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “While we appreciate the help offered by the Druze outside Syria, it is only the Syrian army that can help us.”
Although Israel continues to present itself as a neutral provider of humanitarian assistance, its policies have inflamed tensions within its own Druze community, who see Israel as helping those who are slaughtering their relatives across the border.
We know what the Israelis are doing with the militants, how they are helping them, and we don't need their help.
“One of the major concerns of the Druze in Israel is whether Israel is providing assistance to Nusra Front,” explained Aymenn al-Tamimi, an analyst and fellow at the US-based Middle East Forum.
Their concerns are not unfounded. In a short documentary aired on Israel’s Channel 2, wounded Syrian fighters being treated in an Israeli hospital said they would not protect the Druze, adding that Nusra Front fighters would probably kill the Druze if they entered their areas.
Claiming to be fighters with the Free Syrian Army, they freely admitted to fighting alongside Nusra Front in the south, hailing the fighters as “strong and heroic”.
Until his arrest in February, Sidqi Maqt, a Druze living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, spent three years documenting meetings between Israeli army personnel and Syrian opposition fighters, including Nusra Front.
In fact, Nusra’s presence along the north is so prominent that, according to one report, Israeli soldiers half-jokingly call the Quneitra Crossing – one of the crossing points between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria – the “Nusra crossing“.
“From the Israeli perspective, it has been better for them that the rebels control the area, because they’ve never launched attacks on Israel, unlike groups like Hezbollah,” said Tamimi. “So if you’re going to intervene to save the Druze, then it contradicts with siding with the rebels.”
According to Tobias Lang, a researcher on religious minorities in the region, Israel has never had a strong interest in helping the Druze of Syria.
“The Israelis have worked out a clandestine or tacit relationship with the opposition groups in order to keep the northern front quiet,” he told Al Jazeera. “But the Druze in Israel want the government to help their brethren in Syria, and the government doesn’t want further unrest inside the country, especially since the media has sided with the Druze.”
“They’re only doing it now because of the immense public pressure and media campaign,” Lang claimed. “The situation of the Druze in the Golan Heights has been bad for the last two years, especially Hadar, and the Israelis have been watching it unfold and did nothing.”
Despite the June 22 attack on the ambulances, Israel’s defence minister has indicated there will be no change in Israel’s policy on treating wounded Syrians.
“We will continue providing humanitarian aid to children, women, and wounded arriving at our borders because these are our values,” said Moshe Yaalon.
Whether this statement will foment further unrest or affect the willingness of Israel’s Druze residents to participate in the Israeli army remains to be seen. But Druze residents have made it clear that they will no longer sit by idly and watch as their coreligionists fight.