Israeli Druze leaders traveled to Damascus on Thursday 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 the recent wave of Islamic State attacks in the area and with the families of those who were kidnapped by the jihadist group.
Their trip was arranged by the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan. They plan to return to Israel on Sunday.
Their visit coincides with a similar trip by Lebanese Druze leaders, who will join their Syrian and Israeli counterparts in a gathering of the minority sect’s leadership from all three countries.
Members of the Druze community, especially from villages on the Israeli Golan who remain publicly loyal to Syria 51 years after the area was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, 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.
The current trip may be another sign that the war is in its last stages as the Bashar Assad regime’s forces and allies from Russia, Lebanon and Iran prepare for a final offensive against the last major rebel-controlled part of the country, the northern province of Idlib. As the fighting winds down, the Druze may be looking to rekindle communal ties severed by the violence.
It may also reflect growing agitation among Israel’s Druze following the passage of the nation-state law last month, which sparked mass protests from members of the community who charged that the law turned them into second-class citizens.
The trip could land the Israeli Druze delegation in hot water, as it violates Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law, which forbids Israeli citizens from visiting Syria and a handful of other nations that are officially at war with the Jewish state.
Sheikh Ali Ma’adi, head of the Israeli Druze Committee for Contact with Druze Communities in the Arab World, arranged the visit but did not participate. He is not allowed to leave the country because of his past efforts to arrange similar trips to countries Israelis are forbidden to visit.
“We’re visiting members of our people, our relatives and brothers in Syria, and holy sites there,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with that.”
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.
Under a plea deal, the sheikhs all agreed not to repeat the visits. According to Haaretz, some of the Druze leaders taking part in the current visit also took part in past ones.