Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Druze community leaders on Wednesday in an effort to quell tensions after the Golan Heights lynching earlier this week.
One Syrian was killed and another severely wounded on Monday night, when a military ambulance was set upon by a mob of about 150 local residents — the second such attack that day — angry over rumors that Israel was aiding jihadist rebels. The Syrian kindred of Israel’s Druze have come under attack by rebels in recent weeks.
“Your boys, our boys all serve and fight in the IDF and defend the country that belongs to all of us,” Netanyahu said. “We are all law-abiding, loyal citizens, and if someone violates these rules and takes the laws into their hands it is our duty to condemn it and to make sure that these violations will not become the norm. This is something we must prevent – the recurrence of such incidents.
“I cherish the community, cherish its achievements, its contribution to the state in general and to the state’s security specifically,” Netanyahu added.
The leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, strongly denounced the attack.
“Of course we condemned everything that happened. Our tradition and religion are against harming an injured person or an ambulance. This is not our way, not our education… and we hope you will continue to lead this whole affair wisely. We are at your service,” Tarif said.
Nine people from Druze villages in northern Israel were arrested by police overnight Tuesday and on Wednesday on suspicion they were involved in attacks on ambulances transporting wounded Syrians for medical care in the Golan Heights Monday.
The Nazareth Magistrate’s Court extended the remand of five of the men suspected in the killing. It also extended the remand for four additional suspects linked to the attack.
Police investigators also searched the homes of the suspects, five of whom were from the Golan border town of Majdal Shams and four from the Druze village Hurfeish in northern Israel, Israeli media reported.
The Israeli military believes the rioters in the second incident may have been tipped off by a soldier who leaked information about the ambulance, allowing the attackers to lay an ambush.
The twin attacks on the ambulances were roundly condemned by Israel’s leadership, with Netanyahu vowing to catch those who “took the law into their own hands.”
The attacks came as Druze in Israel have raised concern over the advance of jihadist rebels in southern Syria, including Druze villages.
The attackers in both incidents apparently believed the ambulances were carrying members of al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, though the IDF has insisted it does not offer medical treatment to Islamist rebels and the injured Syrians were civilians.
In the first attack early Monday, rioters threw rocks at an ambulance as it passed by Hurfeish. The Israeli army vehicle, carrying spillover casualties from the Syrian civil war, was stopped early in the morning outside the town and surrounded by several residents who demanded they be allowed to inspect the passengers, police said.
As the ambulance pulled away, it was pelted with stones, and a 54-year-old local man was left injured, apparently after he was hit by the military vehicle.
On Monday night, a crowd of Druze again attacked an ambulance, this time as it passed through Majdal Shams, blocking an ambulance and pulling out the wounded Syrians, in what has been described as a lynching.
Police said one of the Syrians died of his wounds and the second man was in critical condition. Two Israeli soldiers were also lightly injured in the incident, apparently while trying to protect the wounded Syrians, who were being transported with light to moderate wounds according to Israel’s Army Radio.
“We did our best to protect the wounded, but the rioters beat us, we were not able to stop them, they beat them with chains and sticks,” one of the Israeli soldiers who was lightly injured in the attack told Army Radio.
Pictures from the scene of the attack showed the ambulance windshield smashed by rocks and other heavy damage.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot convened an emergency meeting over the incident. “It’s inconceivable that IDF soldiers and [Syrian] wounded are attacked by Israeli citizens,” he told the media.
הדרוזים ביצעו לינץ בפצועים הסורים. התמונות קשות. מצבם קשה. pic.twitter.com/98qIcDzYs4
— Guy Varon (@guyvaron) June 22, 2015
Israel routinely takes in and treats Syrians injured in the civil war, and the Israel Defense Forces has set up a field hospital along the border, though it transports more serious cases to hospitals elsewhere in the country, without prejudice to which side of the civil war the injured was fighting on, according to the IDF.
The IDF denied that the military provides medical treatment to Syrian jihadi fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. IDF spokesman Motti Almoz said Israel “has not provided aid to the Nusra Front over the past four years, since the civil war in Syria began.”
However, the Assad regime, which the Druze remain loyal to, regularly accuses Israel of being in league with the jihadist rebels. An Assad mouth piece on Tuesday praised the rioters as “heroes” after the killing.
Druze in Israel have held several rallies over the past weeks to pressure the government to intervene on behalf of the Druze community in Syria, which they fear is under an onslaught by jihadi rebels fighting the Bashar Assad regime.
The Druze, a mystic sect that broke away from Shiite Islam in the 11th century, are ideologically loyal to the countries in which they reside. Israel’s Druze speak Hebrew and many serve in the IDF.
However, residents of the four Druze villages in the Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel in 1967, remain outwardly loyal to the Syrian regime and have mostly refused to accept Israeli citizenship.
Druze are considered heretical to Sunni Islam, and have been targeted by the radical al-Nusra Front and Islamic State groups.
Since at least 20 Druze were killed earlier this month by al-Nusra near the Turkish border, their Israeli counterparts have become more forceful in pressuring Jerusalem to find a solution to their plight.
The Israeli government has been monitoring the situation and mulling a number of proposals to aid the embattled group, including the creation of a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.