In a further sign of the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria, leaders of the Druze community on the Golan Heights have asked Israel to take in their coreligionists living across the border in the war-torn country.

The request came in a letter handed to Prime Minister’s Office Director-General Harel Locker at a meeting with Druze leaders on the Golan Heights Thursday. The letter included an unprecedented request for Israel to take in Druze students who had left the Golan and settled in Syria, Maariv reported.

“We’re talking about permits for the families of students who come from the Golan and remained in Syria… married there and established families, and because of the difficult security situation are looking to return to Israel,” explained Nabih Hanjar, an attorney who handed Locker the letter.

“Israeli law does not allow for [the students’ automatic return], because after a few years [of residence in Syria] the Interior Ministry removes their names from the Population Registry. That’s why we’re asking for an exception to be made so that they can return to Israel with their families. We’re talking about no more than 20 families,” Hanjar said.

The unusual meeting took place at the home of Sheikh Taher Abu Salah, the spiritual leader of the four Druze villages on the Golan Heights, Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, Buq’ata and Ein Qiniyye. Over 100 Druze leaders attended the gathering, including the chief spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community Sheikh Muafak Tarif, former cabinet minister Salah Tarif, and local elected leaders, including Golan Regional Council Chairman Eli Malka.

While the letter referred only to the immediate situation of the students, representatives of Sheikh Abu Salah raised a broader issue in the meeting with Locker: family members of the Golan Druze trapped in the conflict zones of the Syrian civil war.

The larger issue will likely be the more difficult for Israel to navigate.

“These are Druze who served in the Syrian army and fought against Israel, government employees of the Syrian regime, and small business owners in the cities and towns deep inside Syria,” one Druze leader told Ma’ariv.

“There are many families in Syria who have relatives living here, and they are asking us for sanctuary from the battles taking place over there,” the leader added.

A minority religious sect that grew out of Islam, the Druze are a distinct ethnic and religious group in the region. Though their secretive religion belongs to the esoteric mystical traditions of the Middle Ages, the group is widely known by its loyalty to the state ruling over them. Israel’s Druze serve in the IDF and support Israel in its conflicts with neighboring states, and Syria’s Druze have served the regime in Damascus for generations.

The latest request from Israel may mark a dramatic shift for the Golan Druze, long torn between their loyalty to Syria and the Israeli claim of sovereignty over the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan plateau.

For decades, Druze on the Golan Heights have largely declined Israeli citizenship, which has been offered to them since Israel extended civil law over the region in 1981. A protected minority in Syria, the Golan’s Druze remained loyal to the Assad regime, but have found that loyalty tested by the regime’s brutality in the civil war. According to government figures, 2012 showed a sharp several-hundredfold increase in requests by young Golan Druze for Israeli citizenship.

Some 20,000 Druze live on the Israeli Golan Heights and some 133,000 live in the rest of Israel.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the report.