In the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams, Druze attorney Kifah Johary debated with himself over this week’s killing of a wounded Syrian man en route to an Israeli hospital.
Blood still stained a parking lot and shards of glass littered the asphalt outside an Israeli settlement where enraged Druze villagers allegedly pulled the man from an ambulance and killed him. “We don’t kill people just like that, and this act is completely different from the Druze people,” said Johary, who is defending some of the men accused in the attack. . “But on the other hand, our people are under existential threat…. Maybe this man killed our brothers.” The grisly attack illustrates the anger and frustration Druze in Israel proper and the Golan Heights feel over the civil war in neighboring Syria, where Islamist rebels have recently taken aim at Druze villages.
Israeli police have arrested eight suspects in connection to the attack on the ambulance in Majdal Shams. Police arrested an additional four people who allegedly tried to stop a second ambulance earlier Monday near the Druze village of Hurfeish inside Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attacks, which also seriously wounded a second Syrian fighter and two Israeli soldiers. Druze leaders blasted the violence as well, including Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze, and Majdal Shams council head Dolan Abu Saleh.
“We must not be violent against the injured Syrians,” Abu Saleh told the Forward. “The Druze on the other side (of the border) have Muslim neighbors they have to live with in the future. And if we keep doing these irresponsible, inhuman acts, we will harm the future of the Druze on the other side.”
The Druze are a secretive sect with scattered communities in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. In each country, this tiny religious minority has survived by hitching its destiny to the ruling government. In Syria, the Druze swore loyalty to Assad and joined his army – and today find themselves in a precarious position as Assad’s regime slips.
In Israel, most of the nation’s 130,000 Druze hold Israeli citizenship; the men serve in the Israeli military at higher rates than their Jewish counterparts. But the roughly 20,000 Druze in the Golan Heights do not recognize Israel’s 1967 conquest of the territory from Syria. Instead, the Golan Druze largely maintain Syrian citizenship and keep in close contact with their relatives in Syrian Druze communities.
In early June, Nusra Front fighters killed at least 20 Druze villagers in the Syrian province of Idlib. Days later, Nusra Front fighters surrounded the village of Hader, near the Syrian frontier with the Golan Heights.
Israel has brought more than 1,600 injured Syrians to its hospitals in the last two years, and residents of Majdal Shams said they are sure among those patients are Nusra Front fighters who have attacked their brethren.
Locals have slapped together mattresses and tarps to create a more comfortable lookout point onto Hader. Pharmacist Aml Hamd married a woman from Hader; he said they often visit the lookout point to see her ancestral village in the distance.
“They have no way to bring in food or weapons, or even medicine,” Hamd said. “How is it that we are helping terrorists?”
Israel claims it has maintained a policy of strict neutrality in Syria’s war. Army spokesman Lt.-Col. Peter Lerner said Israel provides aid to injured people on the border only out of humanitarian concern.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
He conceded the army does not check the identities of the patients. “We don’t ask who they are, we just make sure they aren’t carrying any weapons,” he said.
But a United Nations observer mission on the Golan border has filed several reports detailing active cooperation its forces have witnessed between the Israeli military and Syrian rebels. In one report, filed last June, the UN force, which includes soldiers from Ireland, Fiji and India, identified Israeli soldiers on the Israeli side handing over two boxes to armed Syrian opposition members on the Syrian side.
The Israeli army acknowledged the two victims attacked by the Golan Druze were insurgent combatants but denied Monday that they were Nusra Front fighters, according to Haaretz.
A spokesman for Ziv Medical Center in the town of Safed said about 500 Syrians had come through the doors in the last two years, including 10 births, children’s injuries, the elderly. About half the injured have been young men aged 18 to 40, who might have been combatants.
The army is planning to tighten security around the military ambulances, Lerner said. Israeli media report the military may helicopter patients to hospitals in central Israel to avoid the Druze.
Yoram Schweitzer, a counterterrorism expert at the Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel offers treatment to all Syrians as a type of preemptive foreign policy.
“Syria will be in turmoil and there will be all kinds of groups that will dominate different areas, then Israel wants to have connections with people who are residing there,” Schweitzer said.
That’s a logic Majdal Shams Mayor Abu Saleh understands.
“I have a sense that giving humanitarian aid to the people who are trying to attack the Druze on the other side opens a channel of communication with them, so that if Israel needs to stop them later, it can,” Abu Saleh said. “So it’s a good strategy for the Druze.”
But he conceded, many of his constituents disagree. Abu Saleh spoke to the Forward at a sunny table at the Apres Ski coffeeshop, one of a dozen Western-style restaurants competing for real estate with Druze pita shops, cherry stands and baklawa bakeries.
Tanks and military jeeps trundled past regularly.
A few doors down, Mira Amer, 50, poured fruit juice for a guest. Above her hung a home-made embroidered eagle decorated with the Syrian flag.
Her son had been arrested before dawn as a suspect in the mob killing. Amer, whose name has been changed because of an Israeli gag order on the case, asserted that her son was innocent –but also insisted that the killing was no crime.
“What happened is not how the Zionists describe it, as a murder,” she said. “We asked only not to help the people who are killing us.”
Inside Israel, the former council head of Hurfeish, Rekad Kheredin, said he worried the trigger-happy people who attacked the ambulances in his own village and in Majdal Shams would crack apart broad Israeli support for the plight of Syrian Druze.
“We want to help our bothers in Syria legally,” said Kheredin, a retired Druze officer in the Israeli military. “Israel is our country, and as we are obligated to protect our brothers, we are obligated to protect our country.”
Hamd, the pharmacist, said military ambulance drivers could avoid the flashpoint town of Majdal Shams if they want to avoid a repeat of this week’s violence.
“Why now, when they see all the people are boiling, why are they going through the village?” he wondered. “There are other ways, outside the village. There are many roads they could have taken.”