While the rest of the world focuses its attention on the Syrian refugees pouring into Europe, residents of this Druze town in the Golan Heights are more concerned about those left behind – specifically, their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins stuck on the other side of Israel’s northeastern border.
The plight of the Syrian refugees, which has generated an outpouring of sympathy from across the globe, does not seem to move those living here, on what was once Syrian territory. But as they explain it, the Druze community does not take a favorable view of those who abandon their land.
To quote Salah Abu Salah, 62, whose words echo the sentiments of many here, “Anyone who abandons his land is not worth a cent in my eyes. Where you are born is where you should die. That is something I learned from my grandfather, who learned it from his grandfather.”
Abu Salah pauses to take a long drag on his cigarette. “We must fight until our last breath for our land,” he adds eventually.
At the downtown Hashalom Oriental Restaurant, Jamal Shaar and his wife Turkiye are taking a break after the lunchtime rush. “These people who are running away, it’s not a pleasant thing,” says Jamal. “But we’ve lived through many occupiers. There were the Turks, the French and now the Israelis. But we never left our land. That’s because we prefer to die for our land than to leave it.”
Does he not understand his former countrymen who feel compelled to flee because their lives are in danger? “There are always things that put your life in danger,” he responds. “If it’s not going to be war, it’ll be a heart attack.”
A television in the corner of the restaurant is broadcasting a program from Syria. A joyful bride and groom appear on the screen, their guests dancing around them. “You see that?” asks Jamal. “Things aren’t that bad in Syria. People are getting married. They sing. They dance. They celebrate.”
The road leading to Majdal Shams is dotted with apple vendors trying to off-load their wares. It is the height of the apple-picking season here, but ever since Israel sealed its border with Syria last year, a key market has been cut off. Aside from constant worry over the fate of their families across the border, finding alternative markets for their apples is another key cause of stress.
The largest of the four Druze towns in the Golan Heights, Majdal Shams (population 13,000) has been under Israeli rule since the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel officially annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.
The Druze are members of a Middle Eastern religious group – its main centers are in Syria, Lebanon and Israel – who speak Arabic but are not Arabs. Until the civil war in Syria erupted over four years ago, the Druze of the Golan Heights overwhelmingly supported President Bashar Assad, and it was common for them to send their children to study in Syrian universities. Many harbored the hope that the Golan Heights would eventually be returned to Syria and they would be reunited with family members they were separated from in 1967. There was no reason for them to believe that anyone but the Assad family would ever rule Syria (Bashar’s father, Hafez, was president from 1970 until his death in 2000). But the bloody civil war has called into question these basic assumptions, causing many here to rethink their loyalties.
However, even those who have turned against Assad are careful to refrain from making public declarations. They fear that any criticism they voice about the regime could be used against relatives in Syria. “I believe that two-thirds of the people here in Majdal Shams are anti-Assad today,” says a woman whose nephew was jailed by the Syrian government last year and later died in mysterious circumstances. “That’s because Assad has destroyed Syria.”
Less visible support
A sign of the times is that Syrian flags are no longer paraded at Druze demonstrations in the Golan Heights, says Hamad Awidat, a resident of Majdal Shams and regional correspondent for Iranian television. “We had a big demonstration here last week after a Druze leader was killed in Syria, but the only flags I noticed were the Druze ones,” he observes over coffee at his broadcasting studio. “There is less support for Assad, but there is also less support for the rebels.”
Awidat does not believe that all those fleeing Syria are acting out of fear for their lives. “Maybe just 20-30 percent of those leaving are actual refugees,” he states. “The rest are looking for economic opportunities and the chance to get a European passport. Among them are some who had problems with the regime in the past. Now that the doors are open, it’s a good opportunity for them to leave. “
As for those he sees as genuine refugees, Awidat believes they are not fleeing from Assad but Islamic State. “If you look at the areas of Syria that these refugees came from, it’s from the areas up north that are controlled by ISIS.”
Awidat finds himself in the unusual position these days of having to defend both the president of Syria and the prime minister of Israel. When asked if Israel should have offered to take in some of the Syrian refugees, his answer is an emphatic no. “Netanyahu was right to refuse,” he says. “Once you open the door, it will be endless – and there will be many Palestinian refugees taking advantage of the opportunity. They’ll come with the keys to their old homes and, before you know it, the Jews in Israel will be outnumbered.”
Fawziya al-Safadi runs a thriving business from her spacious home, cooking up authentic Druze dishes for Israelis and foreign visitors. The Syrian border fence is in clear view from her salon, where the guests take their meals on the floor.
When the Six-Day War broke out, Fawziya’s sister happened to be in Damascus on a shopping trip. She was never allowed to return to her family in Majdal Shams. Fawziya points to a photo on the wall of a family reunion that took place in 1997, 30 years after the war. “We had to wait until Israel had peace with Jordan, so we could hold the reunion in a place we could both travel to,” she explains.
Like many Druze residents in the Golan, Fawziya uses Skype and Viber to stay in contact with her family in Syria. Although times are bad, she says, her relatives there would never consider leaving. “The Druze prefer to die in their homes rather than leave,” she says. “It’s part of our faith.”
Whether they support the regime in Syria or oppose it, Majdal Shams residents prefer to keep Assad out of the picture. “I don’t support Assad personally, but I support the Syrian army and the Syrian state,” says Abu Salah, who runs a coffee shop in town.
Marcel Walder, who works at a currency exchange operation in town, is one of the few Christians in Majdal Shams. “It’s not that I have anything personal against Assad,” says the tattooed 24-year-old. “I’m against all dictators.” The son of a Czech mother and Syrian father, Walder estimates that about one-third of Majdal Shams’ residents oppose Assad today. His father’s sister and her husband still live in Syria and have no plans to leave. “They’re in Damascus, which is pretty safe,” he notes.
Asked how he feels about the huge number of Syrians fleeing the country, Walder responds, “Well, I guess the situation must be pretty bad if they’re willing to take such big risks.”
Abu Salah Majid, who owns a pita shop in town, blames the entire world for the situation across the border. “Obama, Putin, Israel, Turkey, they’re all responsible,” he says. “What is happening is genocide.”
Does he believe Israel should be taking in Syrian refugees? “No,” he responds, “they shouldn’t take in any refugees. What they should do is make peace. That’s the best help they can give them.”
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