At the center of Majdal Shams, a large brass statue commemorates the Great Druze revolt against French colonialism in the mid 1920s. Recently, someone taped a Syrian flag to the sword held high by mustached revolutionary leader Sultan Al-Atrash. Thirty years after his death, Al-Atrash has unwillingly become a supporter of Bashar Assad.
Nestled in the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, Majdal Shams is the northernmost and largest Druze village in the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. It lies just 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Damascus, but could well be on a different planet.
On July 22, residents of Majdal Shams came out of their homes to watch a plume of smoke rise over Jubata Al-Khashab, a small Syrian hamlet located just across the fence, within the UN buffer zone between Syria and Israel, as Assad forces bombed it.
‘This was the first time our loyalty to Syria was really put to the test,’ says Shefaa Abu-Jabal, an anti-Assad activist
“Our hearts go out to the people of Syria,” says Dolan Abu-Salah, the mayor of Majdal Shams. “We thought the violence there would end quickly; we didn’t expect Bashar to use heavy weapons against children.”
Abu-Salah, 34, leads a conflicted town. When protests erupted in Syria on March 15, 2011, the 20,000 Druze living in the Golan Heights — most of whom refused to accept Israeli citizenship when it was offered to them 30 years ago — were staunch supporters of Bashar Assad. But as violence increased in Syria, rifts began to emerge within the social fabric of Majdal Shams.
Shefaa Abu-Jabal, 26, helped organize the first anti-Assad protest in Majdal Shams, two weeks after the unrest began across the border. She also circulated an anti-Assad petition, which 100 residents signed.
“This was the first time our loyalty to Syria was really put to the test,” she says. But the tiny group of anti-Assadists were met with public rage. Signatories to the petition were pressured to withdraw their names by family members, and regular anti-Assad protests organized on Fridays were violently dispersed by angry residents.
Abu-Jabal says that the Assad opponents are still a small minority in the town. “Twenty percent is a generous estimate,” she notes bitterly. Whereas anti-Assad demonstrations garner 100-150 participants on average, pro-Assad demonstrations draw 1,000-2,000 people, she claims. The animosity between the two camps runs deep on regular days, too.
“We get dirty looks on the street, we don’t get invited to weddings, and people write nasty things about us on Facebook,” Abu-Jabal says. “Gossip here can kill people. It can ruin your reputation.”
Golan Druze support Bashar Assad for various reasons, Abu-Jabal explains. Some believe that as a member of the Alawite minority, he is more likely than a Muslim president to protect the theologically similar Druze. Others identify with the ideology of the Syrian Baath party. She says that Druze religious leaders play a negative role in the community, calling for a boycott of anti-Assad activists.
But Abu-Jabal adds that she is no longer as angry at the older generation or at the religious leadership as she used to be, when the uprising began.
“The elderly are a disappointed generation,” she says. “Years have gone by, and the [Israeli] occupation of the Golan hasn’t ended. These people just want to be reunited with Syria; they’re worried that as they get older they may not live to see that day.”
The Syrian uprising would not be the first storm the Druze faithful have been forced to weather. A heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam, Druze have been persecuted by Muslim rulers in Syria and Lebanon — both Shiite and Sunni — since the religion’s inception in the 11th century. Many of the teachings of the Druze faith are kept secret, only known to a select group of elders known in Arabic as Uqqal, or knowledgeable ones. Druze politicians, like Lebanese MP Walid Jumblatt, are notoriously fickle in their political alliances.
But the politics of survival, so characteristic of the Druze in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, may turn detrimental in the post-Assad era. Mayor Abu-Salah, an outspoken critic of the Assad regime (“both father and son”), says the Druze will soon have to take a clear stand against Assad. Otherwise, they may suffer reprisals by the Muslim majority following his downfall.
“The Druze in Syria are neutral, so they are less vulnerable today,” Abu-Salah says. “We don’t like this neutrality. After Assad falls, the Druze will have to answer to the other Syrians who rose up.”
Qasim Sabbagh, a local businessman, agrees that the moment of truth for the Druze of Syria is approaching. ”Assad will not rule again. It’s over,” he tells the Times of Israel.
‘In December the Mukhabarat (secret service) summoned 18 [Druze] students. They beat them and threatened them. Since then, my brother is under 24-hour surveillance’
One indication of how bad things are in Damascus was the request of 101 Druze students studying in the capital to be allowed to return to their homes in the Golan. On August 7, the Quneitra border crossing was unusually opened and 86 students entered Israel.
Abu-Jabal says that many of the students returned with symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, having witnessed sporadic killing in Damascus. But 15 students decided to stay in Syria, either because they are supporters of the regime or reluctant to miss their exams.
Amir (not his real name), a student and active anti-Assad protester, is still in Damascus. His sister says that like a number of other Druze students from the Golan, he has been repeatedly intimidated by Syrian intelligence in past months, but continues to insist on speaking his mind and participating in demonstrations.
“In December the secret service summoned 18 [Druze] students. They beat them and threatened them. Since then, my brother is under 24-hour surveillance.”
Amir was reluctant to speak to the press, telling his sister in a phone conversation from Damascus that his mobile phone is being tapped. But word of Amir’s activities has seeped into Majdal Shams. His sister, who works in a local clinic, says she regularly gets shunned by visiting patients who won’t even say hello.
Abu-Jabal, who studied at Haifa University but says she feels more Syrian than Israeli, notes that her community has increasingly emphasized its sectarian Druze identity since the beginning of the uprising 18 months ago.
“I hope that trend stops,” she says. “Druze in the new Syria will have to learn how to fit in rather than isolate themselves. But they may learn that lesson the hard way.”