Will Is­rael shield the Druze from Syr­ian rebels in the Golan Heights?

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BYWILLIAM BOOTH wil­liam.booth@wash­post.com Ruth Eglash con­trib­uted to this re­port.

ma­j­dal shams, golan heights — From their hill­top cherry or­chards, mem­bers of Is­rael’s mi­nor­ity Druze pop­u­la­tion come to watch and worry about their cousins in Syria, whose towns just a fewmiles away are now sur­rounded by ji­hadist rebels.

The Is­raeli Druze fear they are about to see a slaugh­ter of their peo­ple un­fold in Syria and are ap­peal­ing to Is­rael and the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria to in­ter­vene. Is­raeli of­fi­cials made an ap­peal to the United States to pro­tect the Druze, an an­cient peo­ple whose es­o­teric faith com­bines el­e­ments of Is­lam, Chris­tian­ity and Ju­daism, as well teach­ings from the Hin­dus and Buddha.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials say they are closely mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion, but so far the tense skir­mishes on the Syr­ian side in­volv­ing the Druze have been lim­ited.

Tell this to the young Druze men rac­ing up and down the streets, on horse­back and in all­ter­rain ve­hi­cles, wav­ing Druze flags. Sev­eral hun­dred have be­gun to or­ga­nize self-de­fense cadres of their own, mus­ter­ing for week­end train­ing ses­sions in small-arms tac­tics, taught by off-duty Is­raeli sol­diers.

Af­ter four years on the side­lines, the com­plex and vi­o­lent dy­namic in the Golan high­lands threat­ens to draw Is­rael into the Syr­ian war as all sides — Syr­ian rebels, Is­rael, Syr­ian army, Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah, Druze, U.N. forces and the Amer­i­cans— wait to see what hap­pens next.

The 170,000 Druze liv­ing in Is­rael, most of them cit­i­zens and in­clud­ing many ac­tive Is­raeli sol­diers and vet­er­ans, warn that any day now be­sieged Druze towns on the Syr­ian side will be stormed by rebels bat­tling to top­ple Bashar al-As­sad.

There is a mix of rebel troops jostling for po­si­tion on the Syr­ian side of the Is­raeli bor­der, in­clud­ing the more mod­er­ate Syr­ian Free Army, but also the al-Nusra Front and scat­tered units from the Is­lamic State. Both the pres­ence of Jab­hat al-Nusra and es­pe­cially the Is­lamic State worry the Druze, be­cause the two Sunni mili­tias con­sider the Druze, a hetero­dox off­shoot of Shi­ite Is­lam, as in­fi­dels and de­filers of Is­lam.

The al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate, seized tanks and ar­tillery from a Syr­ian army base two weeks ago. The tanks are now de­ployed around a clus­ter of Druze vil­lages in Syria. Inthe past, the Druze have sup­ported As­sad, liv­ing un­der his pro­tec­tion, but now they fear they will be over­run. Their lead­ers are re­fus­ing to send more sons to en­list for As­sad, say­ing they need fight­ers at home to pro­tect their clans but also sig­nal­ing their cal­cu­lus that As­sad is los­ing ground.

On Fri­day af­ter­noon, ar­tillery and tank cannon fire could be heard around the Druze town of Hader just across the bor­der fence from the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied Golan Heights, which Is­rael took con­trol of af­ter the 1967 war and an­nexed in 1981. U.N. peace­keep­ers as­signed to pa­trol the buf­fer zone be­tween Syria and Is­raeli forces have aban­doned their posts and re­main in bar­racks on the Is­raeli side.

Noth­ing and no one is stir­ring in Hader; not a sin­gle car ap­pears on the roads, nor a farmer in the fields, though this is the height of the cherry harvest. Elec­tric­ity to the Syr­ian town is cut off, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion is spotty. Druze on the Is­raeli side have smug­gled cel­lu­lar phones and short-range ra­dios to their fel­low re­li­gion­ists in Syria. They re­port that fam­i­lies are stock­pil­ing food and wa­ter and that men with arms have taken up po­si­tions to de­fend the town.

“We have fight­ers, but they don’t have weapons,” said Salem Milli, a Druze in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied Golan who works as a home front com­man­der and is pre­par­ing con­tin­gency plans for what to do if hun­dreds or thou­sands of Druze want to flee into the Is­raeli side of the Golan.

“Hader is a town in ex­treme dan­ger,” said Yusef Rabah, a Druze Is­raeli from the Galilee area who spent 18 years in the Is­raeli army as a se­nior com­man­der. “We fear there could be a mas­sacre there the world will never for­get.”

The Is­raeli Druze point to a re­port ear­lier this month, when more than 20 Druze were killed by the al-Nusra Front in a vil­lage in north­west­ern Syria, as a taste of what could come.

For its part, the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment is stress­ing that it does not want to get in­volved in the Syr­ian civil war; at the same time Is­rael is warn­ing com­bat­ants on the Syria side it will not per­mit a mas­sacre of Druze on the bor­der and will aid refugees if nec­es­sary.

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said last week, “We are in­tensely mon­i­tor­ing ev­ery­thing that hap­pens on our borders,” but he is hold­ing firm on Is­rael’s pol­icy of keep­ing out of Syria’s civil war, ex­cept when it threat­ens to spill over and en­dan­ger Is­raelis.

The new chief of staff of the Is­raeli De­fense Forces, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, said he would pro­tect Syr­ian Druze along the Is­raeli bor­der but would not put his troops into the fight.

Is­raeli Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, a for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, said it is pos­si­ble that Is­rael, with­out en­ter­ing Syria it­self, might as­sist the Druze.

“They are strong enough to help them­selves, we do not have to fight for them, we have to help them pro­tect them­selves,” Dayan said.

ARIEL SCHALIT/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple take cover from fight­ing be­tween forces loyal to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and Syr­ian rebels in an area on the bor­der with the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied GolanHeights. Is­raeli Druze fear a slaugh­ter of their peo­ple in Syria and are ap­peal­ing to Is­rael and the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria to in­ter­vene.

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