MAJDAL SHAMS — Syrian flags fluttered in the main square on Monday, hoisted high by a boisterous crowd chanting support for the Syrian army and President Bashar Assad. Women wore scarves emblazoned with Syrian flags and men wore shirts printed with Assad’s face. Children perched atop their fathers’ shoulders waved tiny red, white, and black banners. The scene wasn’t in a far away Syrian village, but here in Israel: the Druze village of Majdal Shams, nestled in the shadow of Mount Hermon, where inhabitants still identify strongly as Syrians.
As the Syrian civil war descends further into chaos, the violence is beginning to reach formerly safe Druze enclaves in Syria. Having watched the slaughter and beheadings that have been the fate of other minority groups in the Middle East since the rise of the Islamic State group, Druze across the region are putting aside national differences in a furious effort to fundraise so Syrian Druze can form their own militia.
So far, Druze communities in Israel have collected more than NIS 10 million for the Druze community in Syria to buy weapons and other necessities.
“Israel is not a part of this fighting and doesn’t want to be a part, because if we say we’re going to be part of the fighting it makes it worse for our people in Syria,” Druze MK Ayoub Kara (Likud) said. “But I, as a Druze guy — I’m going to do what I can to support my nation. I’m very loyal to my nation.”
The 1.5 million Druze in the Middle East are always trying to strike a balance between their proud ethnic identity and the country where they happen to live. Druze reside in Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, and one village in Jordan. Israel is home to approximately 130,000 Druze, with 20,000 in the Carmel region, 80,000 in the Galilee, and 20,000 in the Golan Heights.
While the Druze in the Carmel and the Galilee have sworn allegiance to Israel and serve in the army, the Golan Heights Druze still consider Israel an occupying force and identify as Syrians. They do not serve in the army, and very few hold Israeli citizenship. Almost every single family among the Golan Heights Druze community, spread across four villages in the northeastern corner of the plateau, has close family living in Syria.
Traditionally, most of the Syrian Druze have supported Assad, who used army troops to protect them in the four years of civil war. Druze are an offshoot of Islam whose basic tenets are secretive, but the sect is considered heretical by the radical Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
But over the past two months, with Assad’s grip on power growing increasingly slippery, he has withdrawn army forces from the Druze areas of Sweida and the eastern flank of Mount Hermon, in a bid to hold on to Damascus. This has left the Druze feeling vulnerable to attacks from the extremist rebel groups.
“We’re calling on the international community to take into consideration the dangerous position of minorities in Syria,” said Mada Hasbani, a reserves IDF brigadier general who fought in the 2006 Second Lebanon War and currently heads the local council in the Druze village of Yanuh Jat in the Galilee. “Israel should be aware, as we learned from the Jews during the Holocaust. History should not repeat itself; we must help minorities that are under the threat of genocide. The international community must provide all types of help and support so they can protect themselves. Our role as the Druze community is to raise our voices and deliver the message so the international world can know and hear what’s going on.”
Israel is not likely to get involved in any ground operations in Syria, which MK Kara said could do more harm than good. IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot called the proximity of the fighting in Syria to the Golan border “worrying” at a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on Tuesday, his first appearance before the committee. He added that the IDF would take action if a large number of refugees started amassing at the border, to prevent a slaughter of the refugees.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to boost US aid to the embattled minority. In talks with the other countries as well as the UN and Red Cross, Israel has also reportedly raised the possibility of a humanitarian “safe zone” on the eastern flank of Mount Hermon, which would assist the Druze.
These options came to the forefront after at least 20 Druze were massacred by Nusra Front rebels in the Idlib region of northern Syria last week. Some Druze leaders, including Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, said the massacre was the result of local conflicts and not an ethnically motivated attack. In an unanticipated move, al-Nusra issued an apology for the attacks. But the Druze are worried that it’s only a matter of time before they follow in the footsteps of the Yazidis, Kurds, and other minorities subjugated by radical Islamist rebels in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
“The Druze people feel like the Jewish people during WWII,” said Hassan Safadi, a veterinarian in Majdal Shams who received a scholarship from the Syrian government to study medicine abroad. “It’s always the minorities that suffer in chaos.”
Safadi, who has aunts and uncles in Syria, said his family members told him that local villages have been creating their own militia, called “Sheikh al-Karama,” or “The Sheikhs of Dignity,” in order to defend Druze villages. In the past, Syrian Druze have served in the Syrian army or in Assad-supported local militias. But Safadi said local sheikhs are instructing the young men to disobey those orders in order to protect their homes.
Rather than wait for an international diplomatic response, the Druze are taking matters into their own hands. The Druze in Syria have a proud history of defending themselves, as every Druze is quick to tell the story of the Sweida Druze rising up against the French in 1925.
“According to history, the Druze always protected themselves, so we are sure they’re able to now, but they need to have the means and conditions to defend themselves,” said Hasbani. Support for their Syrian brethren means one thing: money for weapons, a number of Druze activists said.
“They need weapons, not fighters,” said Hamad Awidat, a Druze journalist from Majdal Shams who has a news production company with offices in Lebanon and Syria. “They have 50,000 fighters — that is enough. What they need are weapons.”
Kara, the Knesset member, said the Druze community around the world was raising millions of dollars to transfer to the Druze leadership in Syria. The NIS 10 million raised in Israel was transferred through Jordan to Syria, since it is illegal to transfer money directly to Syria from Israel. Kara said the local leadership will decide how to allocate the money, but that much of it will go toward purchasing weapons. “This is not enough to make a military, but it’s a start,” said Kara.
Awidat said the past week’s furious pace of fundraising is an example of the way that Druze can set aside national differences to focus on their ethnic identity. “If we were one power, there would be a Druze army with 200,000 soldiers,” he said.
“What’s more important is that we are Druze first,” said Hasbani. “Second, according to our location, we do respect the country [where we live] and we prove that we are loyal to that identity. But that doesn’t affect our affiliation as Druze or our duty to help and support each other.”
Which is why more than 400 Druze gathered in Majdal Shams on Monday evening, waving the multi-colored Druze flags along with Syrian flags and posters supporting Assad.
“We are here to give support to all the Druze in Syria,” said Mune Abu Sale, a resident of Majdal Shams who works at a hotel. But he was optimistic that Assad’s army would continue to protect his family in Syria. “They’ve supported us for four years, but now [the rebels] are starting to come to our area.”
“We have no weapons, but our hearts are with them,” said Rima Shufi, as she held her son Elayan. Shufi said two of her cousins had died in Syria when the rebels first started encroaching in the Druze area two months ago.
The Druze protesters took to the streets to raise awareness in the Israeli public about the plight of their families in Syria, and also to protest Israel’s treatment of injured Syrian civilians in Israeli hospitals.
Israel has treated 1,600 Syrians injured in the conflict over the past four years. The IDF maintains a field hospital on the border, and has also treated hundreds of Syrians at hospitals inside Israel. Lt. Col. Dr. Itzik Malka, the area’s chief medical officer, told Ynet that the majority of those treated are women, children, and elderly, who are innocent bystanders of the fighting. However, he noted that sometimes the IDF treats patients they know are members of rebel groups.
“We ask them to stop treating Syrians,” said Sale at the protest. “They are taking sick people, but these are the same people who are shooting at us and killing us. And they’re taking these people to get treated at Israeli hospitals and then return to fighting.”
“We have to put pressure on Israel to stop treating these people,” added Awidat, the Druze journalist. “They are feeling safe because they know Israel is behind them.”
Rima Romia was one of the first Syrian Druze brides to cross to border to get married in Israel, in 1986. She has only returned to visit her family in Syria once, about six months before the civil war began. Even though she is Syrian, she said that any Syrian fighter who comes to Israel for treatment is an “absolute traitor.”
“We are in touch and the situation is very bad,” she said. “I support [Assad’s] army, but they are not doing enough.” She said her brother does not sleep at home because he is out guarding the village all night.
“Each village has its own men protecting the village and towns,” she said. As the situation gets worse, she feels even more anxious about returning. “I feel like there is a fire inside me,” she said, as protesters circled with flags. “I wish they could open the border so we could cross to Syria in support of our people.
“Assad is our leader, but if Assad will fall, we don’t know who it will be,” she added.
The uncertainty is hanging over the entire Middle East. As the Islamic State continues its wanton march of devastation, Assad loses his grip on power, and chaos reigns in Syria, no one is sure where the bloodshed will end.
“This is not a Druze issue, this is not just a threat against the Druze,” said Hasbani. “It’s a wake-up call to America and Israel and everyone.”