In Golan Heights, Druze villagers are preparing for war


McClatchy Foreign Staff

For the last month, shopkeeper Salah Abu Saleh has found himself having the same conversation again and again: When the war between Israel and Syria begins, what single foodstuff would he not tire of eating?

“People come in and they buy meat, cans of tomatoes and chickpeas – you know, the basics. They are thinking ahead to what they can feed their families if the war between Syria and Israel lasts months instead of weeks,” he said, standing in the small shop he runs in the center of Majdal Shams. “We are being practical, but even in war you want to eat something you like.”

In this crowded hillside village that straddles Israel’s border with Syria, everyone seems certain that war is on the way. The village, which faces Syria to the northeast and Israel to the southwest, has watched with nervous anticipation as Israel’s military has heightened preparations along the border and Syrian tanks can be seen maneuvering in the distance. Residents have cleaned out bomb shelters and hospitals have run emergency drills.

“You don’t witness as many wars as we do without getting a sense when one is about to land on your doorstep,” said Maryam al Din, a 78-year-old resident of Majdal Shams. “Ask anyone in the village, anyone in the villages around, and they will tell you that if you put your ear to the ground, you will clearly hear that war is coming to this place.”

News last week that Russia would be going ahead with the sale of an advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria has heightened tensions along the border. Israeli officials have said that the sophisticated weapons system would be a “red line” for Israel, especially as they fear that Syria could transfer the missiles to militant groups across the region. Israel’s top generals have warned that they will act to make sure that dangerous weapons from Syria aren’t dispersed to militants, and Israel is widely believed to be behind three separate airstrikes that targeted weapons convoys on Syrian soil earlier this year.

In response, Syrian President Bashar Assad has threatened to “open a front on the Golan Heights."

“There is clear popular pressure . . . and Arab enthusiasm” for such a conflict, Assad said during an interview last week that was broadcast on Lebanon’s al Manar TV, the broadcast outlet of Hezbollah.

His words, and the equally ominous statements being made by Israeli officials, have only hastened preparations in Majdal Shams.

“We are in a very complicated situation, caught between very strong armies and countries. But for us it is simply that we are Syrian Druze and this land, as it is, should be in Syria,” said Fakher Safdi a resident of Majdal Shams.

Majdal Shams fell into Israeli hands during the 1967 Six-Day War. A village of 23,000 Syrian Druze – the Druze are ethnically different from Arabs and follow a religion that borrows from a wide variety of philosophies – it looks more like a city in Syria than the Israeli towns and villages just a few miles away. While Druze who live farther south near the Sea of Galilee largely have embraced the state of Israel, serving in the Israeli army and learning Hebrew in schools, the Druze of the Golan Heights, including Majdal Shams, have always seen Syria as their traditional homeland.

“We long to return to there and to be united with our families once again,” said Dr. Taisser Maray, who works in a local village clinic. “We see ourselves as part of Syria, and so we hurt for what is happening there.”

Like the Druze in Syria, Majdal Shams has found itself divided between those who support the rebels and those who support the Assad regime.

“Families are split, divided between support between one side and another. There have been demonstrations, clashes, we are just trying to keep the peace. That is most important,” said Maray.

In the streets, graffiti in support of the opposition has been scrawled on a wall just a few blocks from a shoe store where photos of Assad were proudly displayed. Residents said that now, as always, their allegiance is to Syria rather than to Israel, but they were unsure of what their country would look like in a year, or even in a month’s time.

“What happens in Syria we feel here,” Safdi said. “We all have family there – brothers, sisters, parents. We hear the news from them and our hearts are heavy for what is happening in our country. It is a very complicated position to be in, but all we can do is prepare and survive.”

Dr. Maray said villagers felt they were being watched by Israeli intelligence, which closely monitors contact the Druze in Majdal Shams have with their families in Syria, and by the Assad regime, which questions the loyalty of the Golan Druze to the Syrian state.

“You feel you are being watched and guarded from every side,” he said. “Yes, this is a strange position to be in.”

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf

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