Israel Is Between Syria, the Druze and a Hard Place

Despite IDF efforts to calm Israel's Druze community about its brethren in Syria, it looks like Israel is losing control in the north. Monday's deadly attack on an IDF ambulance is the latest evidence of this.

Reuters

While Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was touring the Hermon and the Golan Heights on Sunday to see what was happening on the Syrian side of the border, another delegation arrived on the scene.

The heads of the Druze had arrived, accompanied by officers from GOC Northern Command and the intelligence division, and they listened to an overview of the latest developments involving attacks by Syrian Sunni militants in the northern Golan.

The visit, which took place under the initiative of the IDF, was intended to calm the Druze community amid fears of an impending massacre of the Druze town of Khadr on the other side of the border, at the hands of Syrian militants.

Eisenkot, who met personally with leaders of the community in Israel last month, did not meet them this time, but other senior IDF officers have been in constant communication with them. This contact has been maintained in order to stop the growing rift between Israel and its Druze citizens over the state’s approach to the plight of their fellow Druze in Syria.

The Druze visitors to the Hermon certainly got the impression that there was a difference between the desperate reports they received last week and the real situation in Khadr. So far it seems the rebels are heeding Israeli warnings and aren’t advancing toward the village itself. On the other hand, Khadr's residents are preparing to defend themselves as Assad’s forces gradually retreat after failing in their battle against militants last week.

The IDF officers made every effort to emphasize to the Druze leaders that Israeli intelligence elements are closely following what is going on, and that there are plans for military operations to aid the village's residents if they are in danger of a massacre.

Nevertheless, even if it seemed like the unusual visit of the army’s Hermon Brigade (a substantial part of which is made up of Druze soldiers) achieved its aim – on Monday it turned out that the mood among the Druze was stormier than ever. In the second of two attacks on IDF ambulances in Druze towns during a 24-hour period, the residents of Majdal Shams killed a Syrian who had been wounded in the civil war across the border, whom the IDF was transporting to a hospital. Another Syrian militant was also beaten and seriously wounded in the incident. Two Israeli soldiers who were treating the Syrians were also hurt.

The attack in Majdal Shams is the latest evidence of what looks like a gradual loss of control on the northern border. The continued Israeli effort to avoid being dragged deep into the fighting in the civil war in Syria is now under new pressure due to the rift with the Druze.

Israel's Druze leadership describe the mob on Monday – in the second attack in Majdal Shams some 150 people were involved, whereas in the incident in Horfish earlier in the day, there were only a handful – a rabble of hotheads that do not represent the community. Its spiritual leader, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, hurried to be interviewed on Army Radio on Tuesday morning to condemn the attack and to reiterate Israel’s official line, which is that the country seeks to help the wounded “in general,” and that there is no truth to the allegation that Israel purposefully assists members of Al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the extreme groups fighting in the Syrian Golan.

Tarif blamed “people with interests” for spreading rumors that heightened the tensions. In part, he was referring to Syrian intelligence agents who are interested in scaring Israel's Druze in order to lead to a battle between the rebels and the IDF. But it looks as if, within the Druze community in Israel, there are people – not the sheikh himself – who have intentionally stoked tensions in recent weeks.

The IDF and police's role vis-a-vis Monday evening’s deadly attack will require investigation, however. A senior IDF officer said that night that, following the incident in Horfish earlier in the day, the guidelines with respect to transferring wounded Syrians to the hospital were tightened. As a result, a Military Police vehicle accompanied the ambulance when it was called to evacuate the wounded.

We can’t underestimate the seriousness of what happened in Majdal Shams, when, within territory under Israeli control, citizens attack a military ambulance, overpower IDF soldiers, and murder a wounded person being treated by the army. The result seems to show that we underestimated the level of the danger and were ill-prepared when it came to securing the vehicle.

We can assume that from Tuesday on, completely different standards will be in place (with assistance from Druze leaders working to bridle the thugs). But aside from putting the guilty on trial, we need a military and police investigation to ascertain how this could have happened in the first place, in order to prevent another such tragedy from happening again.