Hundreds of Druze rallied on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights Thursday to mark the anniversary of the annexation of the plateau and in a show of support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“This land is the land of our fathers and grandfathers, the land is ours. No one has the right to it other than the Syrians,” participant Qasem Mahmoud al-Safadi told the Reuters news agency.
The rally took place in the Druze village of Majdal Shams, which saw protests last October when municipal elections were viewed by some as an attempt to “Israelize” the region.
Israeli officials say there are about 20,000 Druze on the 1,200 square kilometer (460 square mile) strategic plateau which Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and formally annexed in 1981, in a move not recognized by the international community.
Israel and Syria are still officially in a state of war.
The vast majority of the Israel’s Golan Druze retain Syrian nationality and have family ties to Druze in Syrian government-controlled territory. However a growing number of younger Druze are opting into Israeli citizenship and are less supportive of Assad’s actions in Syria.
Another 110,000 Druze live in the Galilee district of northern Israel, where most have Israeli nationality and perform military service, unlike other Arab citizens.
Israel’s Druze minority has been outraged by the Knesset’s recent passing of the controversial Jewish nation-state legislation, saying the law’s provisions render them second-class citizens despite many of them serving in the IDF.
The nation-state law enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It also defines Arabic as a language with a “special” status, effectively downgrading it from its de facto status as a second official language, though it cryptically stipulates that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”
Israeli Druze leaders traveled to Damascus last September for meetings with their compatriots from Syria and Lebanon in a trip that was apparently not coordinated with Israeli authorities and stands in violation of Israeli national security law.
The delegation of 54 Druze clerics and sheikhs, or communal leaders, all hail from villages and towns in the Galilee and Carmel regions of northern Israel. They were received by Syrian government officials in Damascus, the Haaretz daily reported, then traveled to the Sweida region, which is home to most of the Syrian Druze community. There, they visited the families of those killed in a recent wave of Islamic State attacks in the area as well as families of those kidnapped by the jihadist group.
Members of the Druze community, especially from villages on the Israeli Golan, used to travel across the border on occasion with approval of both governments.
Some went to study in Syria, others to meet families and co-religionists across the heavily fortified Golan divide. But no Israeli citizens are known to have made the journey since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, with the exception of a handful of Arab Israeli jihadists seeking to join the Islamic State, some of whom have since returned and been prosecuted by Israeli authorities.
Israeli Druze clerics last visited Syria in 2007 and 2010. In both cases, Israeli authorities filed indictments against the delegations, even sentencing former MK Said Nafa to a one-year prison sentence for arranging the trips. Israeli officials have tried to be lenient, with the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court overturning the convictions of 16 Druze sheikhs in 2014 for visiting enemy states.