Police said Thursday that they thwarted an attempt by dozens of Druze to cross the border into Syria and meet with government representatives, in violation of Israeli law.
According to a statement by police, the individuals were detained after a months-long investigation that was carried out both undercover and in the open.
Police said that they had warned the delegation’s organizers that their actions would compromise the security of Israel and its citizens.
The delegation nevertheless attempted to cross the border into Jordan at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, where authorities “detained their buses and private vehicles.”
Israeli officials say there are about 20,000 Druze on the 1,200-square-kilometer (460-square-mile) Israeli Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and formally annexed in 1981, in a move not recognized by the international community. US President Donald Trump signed a proclamation earlier this year recognizing Israel’s hold on the Golan.
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 Syrian President Bashar Assad’s actions in the country’s civil war.
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.”
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 coreligionists across the heavily fortified Golan divide.
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.
Israeli Druze clerics 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.
A handful of Arab Israeli jihadists have also crossed the border seeking to join the Islamic State group, some of whom have since returned and been prosecuted by Israeli authorities.