Israel's Druze Call for Rescue of Embattled Syrian Brethren

Days after Jihadi insurgents in Syria slaughtered at least 20 Druze citizens not far from Israel’s border in mid-June, residents of Hurfeish, a village in Northern Israel, streamed to their town square on foot, horseback and bicycle, waving the bright rainbow flag of their religious sect, pledging to save their brethren.

Fearing a looming genocide, they, along with other Israeli members of their sect, collected some $2.6 million in emergency funds to support their beleaguered kin.

But these Druze — residents of the locality with the highest per capita concentration of military and police officers in the country, according to former Hurfeish Mayor Rekad Kheredin — also had a demand for their government.

They say that Jerusalem has a special obligation to defend the Druze because almost all of the males among the country’s more than 130,000 Druze defend Israel as part of the army. It is a demand now being pressed widely by Israeli Druze throughout the country.

“What’s happening in Syria – their pain is our pain,” said Sheikh Youssef Badr, one of the Hurfeish village elders.

Shamsi Amr, 57, said she and her husband donated nearly $200 to the Druze of Syria, even though it was a strain to scrape the funds together from her school cleaner’s salary.

“If I had more money I would give more,” Amr said. “Israel needs to intervene immediately in Syria from the massacre happening there.”

The Druze religion is a 10th-century offshoot of Shiite Islam, and adheres to tenets and teachings whose esoteric core is kept secret even from many of its rank-and-file followers beyond the priesthood; its followers live in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. In each country, Druze swear allegiance to the government and serve in its armed forces, including in Syria. Yet the deterioration of Bashar al-Assad’s regime has left Druze communities vulnerable to attack by violent Islamist groups, who see the Druze as infidels and as enemy soldiers.

The recent slaughter of Syrian Druze, which took place June 11, was committed by members of the Nusra Front, a Sunni Muslim Syrian offshoot of Al-Qaeda. In a statement issued two days later, the group voiced regret for the killings, saying it had received news of them with “great sorrow.” The statement acknowledged that “a number of Nusra Front members” had taken part in them, but without authorization.

“Everyone involved in this incident will be presented to a sharia court and held to account for blood proven to have been spilt,” the Nusra Front statement said.

Observers and analysts in the region saw the statement as part of a recent effort by the Nusra Front to reach out to other groups and win their cooperation, setting it apart from the insurgent force known as the Islamic State, which has been ruthless in eliminating rival sects and organizations.

Druze community leaders are not mollified by the front’s statement. And if anything, they fear the possible encroachment of advancing Islamic State forces on their villages in Syria’s Idlib province even more.

Druze Zionist Council head Atta Farhat appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, about the situation in terms that Israeli Jews were likely to find especially hard to ignore

“Non-involvement in Syria will result in a Druze holocaust under our very noses, and who, more than Israel, knows what a holocaust and genocide is?” he wrote in a letter to the officials, according to Channel 10.

But last year, persistent reports contended that Israel has actually been rendering quiet assistance to the rebel forces on its border for reasons of realpolitik — including to the Nusra Front. The disclosures led a group of Israeli Druze involved in humanitarian assistance to their Syrian brethren to release a statement in November asserting, “Today, it has become a fact that Israel supports all factions fighting the Syrian regime, and supplies them with weapons and takes in the wounded of all factions….We call on members of the Druze sect to act severely toward Israel’s policy.”

In February of this year, a group of Druze residents of the Golan Heights, near Israel’s border with Syria, were arrested on charges of passing information to the Syrian government regarding Israeli military activity on the border that ended up on a Syrian television news broadcast. In the broadcast Sedki al Maket, one of the Golani Druze, reported on a meeting he said he saw taking place between Israeli military officers and Nusra militants on the border.

Analysts say Syria’s dependence for support on Iran, which Jerusalem views as its prime enemy, is leading Israeli military strategists to view the insurgents as a useful counterweight despite their extremist nature and terrorist connections.

Unlike the Druze in northern Israel, most of the 20,000 Druze in the Golan Heights hold Syrian citizenship. Israel seized the territory from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and later applied Israeli law to the area, but it is still regarded as occupied by the international community.

Ayoob Kara, a Druze member of Israel’s Knesset, said he was in touch every day with family and acquaintances in the Druze areas of Syria. Kara said he was planning a visit to Turkey to work out a refugee escape route from Syria for the Syrian Druze. Kara, a member of the ruling Likud party, said he had spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Druze of Syria and felt optimistic.

“Israel is not part of this conflict,” Kara said. “They do not need to do anything to make the Syria area any hotter. But I – as a guy from the Druze nation – I will do everything to support my nation.”

Israeli Druze feel a special license to ask for help from the state because they serve in the army. Since 1956, the Druze have enlisted in the universal Israeli draft. They are the only non-Jewish group to fully participate in the Israeli army; as of 2012, 83% of Druze men served.

In Hurfeish, Aml Kheraldeen spent 13 years in the army as a border guard and a soldier with the Golani Brigade. He showed a reporter a memorial hall devoted to Israel’s first Druze paratrooper, Nabi Mar’i of Hurfeish, who died in battle in 1996. Kheraldeen pointed to the ceramic vest Mar’i wore the day he died (a bullet penetrated the seam of the fabric) as well as the soldier’s extensive fountain pen collection.

“I wanted to show you how much we sacrifice for this country, for the Jews, for our borders,” Kheraldeen said. “And I expect some reciprocity toward the Druze, also when they are in danger, as they are in Syria. We cannot have a genocide there and Israel will not intervene.”

All the same, Kheraldeen said, he would continue to support Druze army service in Israel.

Yoram Schweitzer, an international terrorism expert at the Institute for National Security Studies, said he doubted calls for Israel to intervene in Syria would yield fruit beyond some symbolic or humanitarian aid.

“I cannot see any scenario…. that Israel will go into this hornet’s nest and take the risk of being dragged into the conflict,” Schweitzer said. “This is the policy of Israel and I don’t think the Druze can change it.”

In response to pleas by Kara and others, Netanyahu did appeal to General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was then on an official visit to Israel, to boost American aid to Syria’s Druze. President Reuven Rivlin also reportedly told the general there is a “threat to the very existence of half a million Druze on the Mount of Druze” in Syria, according to Reuters.

Schweitzer said Israel’s Druze have been caught between their loyalties before: In 1982, Druze soldiers in the Israel army were sent to occupy Lebanon.

Kheredin, the former Hurfeish village council head, was one of those soldiers. He said he was a commander in Israel’s Golani Brigade, and found himself ruling over close to half a million Lebanese Druze civilians in the Beirut area. The Lebanese Druze, meanwhile, faced threats from Christian Phalangist militias being funded by Israel.

“It was my people, people of my race who were in distress, and I was an officer in the occupying army in the region, which was causing their distress,” Kheredin said.

Kheredin, who is 54 today, said the Druze leadership in Israel urged then-Prime Minister Menahem Begin to intervene. Begin issued an order to the Phalangists to safeguard the Druze, and allowed the Druze to arm themselves.

The debate among Israeli Druze over how to defend their Syrian counterparts today has yielded no clear answers. But it has shed light on the decreasing relevance of international borders.

In Hurfeish, village elder Badr said that should conditions deteriorate for Druze in Syria, he would condone and even encourage Israeli Druze to slip across the border to attack Islamic fundamentalists.

Kheredin, the former council head, said that before the Syrian civil war, he would not have even considered making contact with Druze living under Assad. Since Israel and Syria are enemy countries, contact is forbidden. But two years ago, Kheredin said he noticed Assad’s hold on Syria had slipped, and he made his first Skype call to a Syrian Druze, whom he met in 2009 in Amman.

“It was an incredible feeling that here finally we hear first-hand from our people in Syria,” he said. “All their houses are like our parents’ houses, with portraits of the sheikhs [religious leaders] on the walls. I felt I am speaking to Druze just like in Hurfeish.”

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