Thousands of Druze citizens demonstrated in the village of Beit Jann in northern Israel on Saturday morning in support of their brethren in Syria, with organizers promising the rallies would “wash over Israel in the coming days.”
Demonstrators were protesting the killings of Syrian Druze by jihadist rebel groups and the threat posed by the rebels to the Druze communities near the Israeli border.
Jihadists consider the Druze, an offshoot of Islam, to be heretics. Members of the communities fear a rebel takeover of their villages could be followed by a demand that residents convert or face violent repercussions. Some have even warned of a possible massacre against the Druze.
Leading members of the minority in Israel have called on the government to help their brethren in Syria following the recent violence.
“This is a demonstration of support for our Druze brothers in Syria,” one man told Channel 2, “and we say to to them: We will not let you be harmed.”
Israel is closely monitoring the situation on the Syrian front, where the Druze border village of Hader was this week surrounded by rebel forces.
Israeli officials are preparing for a possible humanitarian crisis near the border and the prospect of hundreds or thousands of Druze civilians attempting to flee to Israel to escape the rebels.
IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot has said Israel would act to prevent a massacre. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was “closely following what is happening close to our borders,” and that he had “given instructions to do what is necessary,” though he did not elaborate.
An unnamed security official said earlier this week that concerns over Hader had been blown out of proportion, sparking unfounded concerns of a looming massacre and leading the Israeli army to take steps to keep Israeli Druze from trying to go across the border to enter the fight.
“There was a rumor mill according to which dozens of wounded from the Druze village of Hader in Syria were nearing the border fence. The Druze in Israel are our brothers, but someone inflamed the atmosphere in a way that created unnecessary stress and pressure,” he said.
The officer said the army had blocked off the border area with Syria after the rumor spread and people flocked to the area.
“We wanted to prevent a security deterioration. We saw some guys grouping up near the fence on the Israeli side. When we saw that they scattered, we canceled the closed military zone,” the officer said.
Officials say there are 110,000 Druze in northern Israel, and another 20,000 in the Israeli-occupied Golan. Israel captured 460 square miles of the plateau in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
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. The rebel Nusra Front later 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.
Syrian rebels launched a wide-ranging offensive against government positions near the Golan Heights on Wednesday, after shelling in and around Damascus killed at least 33 people, activists said.
The rebels of the Southern Front alliance and the so-called Haramoun Army targeted several areas in the Golan, including the towns and villages of Quneitra, Khan Arnabeh, Baath, Jiba and the base of Brigade 90, the main government force in the region, said opposition activist Jamal al-Jolani, who is based in southern Syria.
Explosions from the fighting could be seen from the Golan Heights in Israel. A Syrian government helicopter could be heard dropping bombs on rebel targets as tanks, believed to belong to the rebels, fired back. An Israeli warplane flew along the frontier as a precautionary move.
AP and AFP contributed to this report