With Druze Facing Possible Massacre in Syria, Israel Is Forced to Take a Stand

The encroachment this week by extremist rebels on the Druze village of Khader in Syria is a microcosm of the predicament the greater community is facing; Israeli Druze compare their concern for a religiously motivated massacre on their brethren to Israeli fears of attacks on Jews abroad.

Reuters

The Syrian-Druze village of Khader, about a stone’s throw from the border with Israel on the Golan Heights, was this week the chief concern of Israel’s 130,000 Druze citizens.

Earlier in the week, the village’s 12,000 inhabitants, who are Syrian citizens, found themselves in the eye of the storm. On Monday, two Syrian army soldiers who were serving in a military outpost next to Khader killed their commanding officer, a Druze, before defecting to the ranks of the extremist rebel organization Nusra Front. The next day, the Sunni rebels seized additional, strategic hills in proximity to the village and took over two Syrian army positions, after driving out the regime-supporting soldiers. Some of the mortars the rebels fired at the army forces landed on the edge of Khader. One Druze girl was killed, and about 10 residents were wounded.

The two positions that were captured were not large military bases but fairly typical Syrian army outposts, of the kind that is familiar to every Israel Defense Forces soldier after decades of participating in training exercises in how to take them over.

In the context of the big picture of the civil war in Syria – where thousands of people are massacred every month and millions have become refugees who might never be able to return home – the events in Khader are barely a blip on the radar. But the outposts that were captured lie barely two kilometers away from Khader, and the fighting around the village is highly visible from the Druze villages on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights – and particularly from the IDF positions on Mount Hermon.

With the conquest of these sites, the rebels have effectively completed the encirclement of Khader. There is still an unused dirt trail that connects the village westward, via the demilitarized zone, to the border with Israel. And there’s also a road, now considered extremely dangerous, that runs northeast toward Damascus.

At the moment, the rebels are not advancing further toward Khader. They probably know that many residents are armed and are organizing to defend their families. The warnings from Israel have also likely had an effect: By means of contacts with some of the local militias from the Syrian part of the Golan Heights – mainly in the form of transfers of wounded people to hospitals in Israel – it was made clear that Israel will not sit by idly in case of an attempt to attack and capture the village.

Nonetheless, those messages have done little to allay the fears of Israel’s Druze community. As far as they are concerned, the small distance between the rebels in the newly captured outposts and the village reflects the magnitude of the danger. Only an hour or two separate their brethren in Khader from potential massacre – a fate that minorities in Syria have already suffered at the hands of extremist Sunni groups such as the Nusra Front and Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.

Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani threatened recently that when his organization enters Druze villages, it will demand that the inhabitants convert to Islam. If they refuse, they will be treated according to the dictates of sharia law, he said. The message came across loud and clear to the Druze: Anyone who refuses to convert will be executed. Indeed, about 20 Druze clerics were murdered by Nusra forces in a village in northern Syria earlier this month.

The danger facing Khader is a microcosm of a larger drama that is taking place in the Jabel Druze area in Syria, close to the border with Jordan. The collapse of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in that area has now made it possible for ISIS troops to advance toward the mountainous region from the west (where the southern front of the rebels, including Nusra, is active), and from the east. At this stage, it looks as though the promises of the United States and Jordan to the residents of Jabel Druze, combined with difficulties facing the rebels in a campaign that requires large-scale deployment, are averting disaster for the Druze.

But if Jabel Druze is a symbol – it’s the community’s most important and populous region in Syria – an incursion into Khader would be like jabbing a finger into the eye of the Druze in Israel, as it will take place just across the border.

Distancing from Assad

Close ties exist between Khader and the four Druze villages on the Israeli part of the Golan Heights. When the IDF captured the Golan Heights in 1967, Khader remained on the other side of the line. But for a few months, from the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 until the separation-of-forces agreements in the spring of 1974, the village was under Israeli control.

The IDF counteroffensive in the wake of Syria’s surprise attack included the takeover of areas across the 1967 line, including Khader. Those areas were returned to Syrian when the IDF withdrew.

In recent years, the Israeli government and the Druze leadership in Galilee and the Mount Carmel regions have made a coordinated effort to bring about a rapprochement with the Golan Heights Druze. As Assad’s situation worsened and he became involved in horrific massacres, the Golan Druze began to distance themselves from him. These days it’s hard to find a picture of the Syrian president on the walls of restaurants in Majdal Shams (in the Israeli Golan), though until the outbreak of the civil war his portrait was everywhere. The solidarity drive with the Druze in Syria is now being led by the community in Israel proper; the Druze in Majdal Shams and neighboring Buqata generally maintain communications silence.

As panicky reports arrived from Khader, the Israeli political and military leaderships stepped up their efforts to calm the Druze community. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot stated in the Knesset on Tuesday that Israel will do everything to prevent a massacre of refugees on its border – a statement reiterated the following day by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I have given instructions for everything necessary to be done,” he added.

On the same day, a senior officer from Northern Command briefed correspondents. “There is no foundation to the spate of rumors about a massacre,” he told them. “That was disinformation. It’s not true that there are dozens of wounded Druze waiting for treatment next to the fence. In any event, we have no intention of becoming part of the fighting in Syria.”

The series of statements are aimed at striking a balance between two contradictory positions. On the one hand, Israel has made a moral public commitment to uphold what’s known as the “blood alliance” with its Druze citizens, who serve in the IDF. On the other hand, military intervention on behalf of the Druze would be a dangerous deviation from the justifiably cautious line Netanyahu has followed during the more than four years that fighting has been going on in Syria. Its essence is that Israel has to avoid as far as possible getting bogged down in that quicksand.

However, the messages are so far not achieving their goal. Many Druze are beginning to suspect that the term “blood alliance” always meant that Druze blood would be shed in the defense of Jews, but not necessarily the other way around. In practice, the remarks by Eisenkot and the senior officer were construed as indirect acknowledgment that Khader might soon face a disaster.

At the beginning of the week, thousands of Israeli Druze took part in protest demonstrations. Reports claimed that in one or two villages, shots were fired in the air, a phenomenon not seen in Druze communities for years. On Tuesday afternoon, Druze from Galilee organized for a protest demonstration at the border. The IDF and the police, fearing that events would lurch out of control, declared the area north of Majdal Shams a closed military zone. Druze leaders explained that most of the would-be demonstrators were “our version of hilltop youth” (referring to unruly young settlers in the West Bank) – generally hotheads or the unemployed. Whatever the case, the declaration did the trick: The demonstrators didn’t show up and the area was reopened.

Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, has begun to speak publicly about the gravity of the situation. He told Army Radio this week that if the IDF does not intervene in favor of the Druze in Khader, there will be mass killings. “Israel, as always, is gambling on the wrong side in the confrontation in Syria,” he said. “In the past, Israel helped both Hezbollah and Hamas to grow, and now it’s making the same mistake with rebel organizations like Nusra.”

There are only two options, Tarif said: assistance to the Druze, or a massacre. That public statement followed a series of meetings Tarif has held in recent months with senior figures in Israel about the situation in Syria. He’s met with President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu, Eisenkot and the head of Northern Command. In meetings with the officers he was told that, if needed, the air force can stop a rebel thrust toward Khader by bombing the advancing troops, but that will require instructions from above.

The Druze are emphasizing the danger of a religiously motivated massacre and comparing it to the concern Jews in Israel feel with regard to attacks on Jews abroad. According to various sources, some 2,000 Druze soldiers serving in Assad’s army have been killed in the war, but that is perceived as the price of the conflict. Similarly, the Druze in Israel did not protest in early May when four young Druze from the Khader area were killed by the air force while trying to plant a bomb along the border on a Hezbollah mission.

However, the present case – involving the deliberate persecution of the Druze, and the danger facing them as a community and a religion – is different, hence the powerful feeling of solidarity combined with a sense of urgency.

Sheikh Tarif is being aided by military advisers in the form of retired senior IDF officers from within the community, some of whom are now council heads in Druze locales. He has the tools needed to read the picture on the border, on top of which many Druze are in active military service on the Golan Heights.

The spiritual leader and his staff are familiar with the scenarios for which the IDF is deploying, from the quick absorption of refugees, to the expansion of a field hospital that is already operating near the border, to military intervention using the air force. At the moment, despite the sheikh’s assertive language, the Druze are still willing to believe that the Israeli leadership will do the right thing, as they see it, if needed. But even if the reports about a massacre in Khader turned out to be false, the fears of the Druze cannot simply be shrugged off. Like much else in Syria, the fate of the encircled village hangs by a thread.

A critical change in the situation, which could confront Israel with an immediate dilemma on the question of military intervention, could transpire within hours. Thus, the latest declarations by senior defense establishment personnel about Israel’s enhanced strategic situation in the north look simplistic and somewhat exaggerated. The situation is good, in relative terms, as of this writing (Thursday). There’s no certainty that the situation will look the same tomorrow or next week.