Palestine Pulse

Syria conflict takes its toll on Golan Druze

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Article Summary
While the Syrian war has taken quite a toll on Syrian Druze in the occupied Golan Heights, some of the Druze fear Israel could use them as a pretext for expanding cross-border military moves.

The small Syrian population that has remained steadfast in the Golan Heights continues to be loyal to Damascus and the Syrian motherland, although 50 years have passed since the Israeli occupation and despite the unilateral Israeli decision to annex the Golan Heights to Israel in 1981.

Out of 130,000 Syrians living and farming the Golan Heights before 1967, 25,000 Syrian Druze continue to live in about 5% of the occupied Syrian territory. Roughly 23,000 Jewish settlers have been living in some 34 settlements in the Golan Heights, in violation of international law.

Syrians in five Golan Heights villages remained on their land when Israel conquered the Golan Heights. The residents of four of these villages — namely Majdal Shams, Bukata, Masada and Ein Qinya — are Druze, which is a secretive offshoot of Islam, mainly based in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. The fifth village, which is the village of Ghajar, is very close to Lebanon’s border and its residents are Muslim.

While Israeli Druze are subject to compulsory enlistment in the Israeli army, since their religious leaders agreed in 1956 that their sons serve in the Israeli army, Druze in the Golan Heights fully reject Israel and its occupation and are fiercely attached to their Syrian Arab nationality.

The nearly seven-year-long civil conflict in Syria has taken its toll on Syrians living in the occupied Golan Heights.

Nizar Ayoub, the director of the Arab Human Rights Center in the Golan Heights, told Al-Monitor that the grinding conflict in Syria has taken quite a toll on the Syrian people in the Golan Heights. “We used to export our apples, enroll our children in Syrian universities and enjoy family visits with our people in Syria. Yet this is no longer the case.”

Even though Syria and Israel have been formally in a state of war since 1967, UN peacekeeping troops administer a small border crossing run by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force that allows limited movement of agricultural products, students and family visits.

Ayoub said that before violence broke out, farmers in the Golan Heights were able to export their products by land to the Arab world via Syria. “The markets were open, and we were able to obtain a good price for our apples; now the choices we have are much more costly. We have to either ship to Europe via Israeli middlemen or pay for storage until the price becomes more profitable.”

Restrictions resulting from the Syrian civil war are not limited to agricultural products. Ayoub noted that hundreds of students used to cross the border to attend classes at Syrian universities. Yet due to the conflict, the Golan students are now forced to study in Israeli or Palestinian universities or travel abroad. He said, “Omar, my son, wants to study medicine. Had the situation been stable, he would have been enrolled in a medical school in Syria. Now I am looking to see if we can find him a seat in a medical school in Bulgaria or Romania.”

Ayoub said that given the circumstances, the Golan residents are helping their relatives in Syria. “Presently we are sending money to our relatives in Syria to help them meet their basic needs, such as food and fuel,” he added.

Suha Munther, a lawyer from Ein Qinya in the Golan Heights, recounted similar stories about the difficulties facing the Golan students. “My cousin — Noor Munther — wanted to study dentistry. Unable to continue her studies in Syria, it took her eight years to graduate including her time at the American University in Jenin. If Syria was stable and open, it would have taken her four years,” she told Al-Monitor. In the beginning, she waited, hoping to be able to pursue her studies in Syria, but violence made her finally change schools, Munther added.

The conflict in Syria got much closer to the residents of the occupied Golan Heights this week.

Salman Fakhreddine, a freelance researcher and activist, told the Saudi-based Arab News on Nov. 4 that the residents of Majdal Shams heard the clashes that occurred in the villages on the other side of the border that the UN monitors, especially in Hadar village. Arab News quoted Fakhreddine as saying that Hadar has paid a high price in the Syrian civil war. “Over 100 have been killed [there] in the last three years and 15 have been killed in the last few days,” he said. “We hear the shooting and the shelling from our homes.”

Because Hadar’s residents are Druze, Israel made public statements Nov. 4 that they will not allow the village to fall, which prompted many in the Golan Heights to say that some protest demonstrations by the Druze are meant to give Israel an excuse to expand its occupation.

Fakhreddine warned that “the Israelis are using the minority Druze residents of the village to prepare for a possible military intervention.” The Israeli army has stated its willingness to do that. “The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is ready and prepared to assist the residents of the village and will prevent the harming or conquering of the village of Hadar because of our deep commitment to the Druze population,” an Israeli army spokesman was quoted as saying.

Munther, however, is not worried about a potential Israeli military expansion. “If Israel could occupy more territory it would have done so. But they know that the Syrian Arab soldiers on the other side will not let them pass.” Munther lashed out at the spiritual head of the Druze community in Israel. “Mowafaq Tarif [the Druze religious leader in Israel] doesn’t speak on our behalf, and we don’t feel that he represents us,” she said.

Munther, who is very proud of her support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, blamed Israel for perpetuating the war in Syria. “While I speak in my name, I believe that Israel orchestrated much of the problems we have been seeing in Syria. It was clearly behind the creation and the armament of some of the armed terrorists in Syria.”

Israel has boasted and publicly stated since the beginning of the conflict that they are treating hundreds of injured opposition fighters from Syria in Israeli hospitals. The Independent reported June 19 that Israel is giving direct aid to the opposition.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

Found in: farming, settlers, israeli occupation, golan heights, annexation, military intervention, syria civil war, druze

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist, a media activist and a columnist for Palestine Pulse. He is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab

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