The war between the regime of President Bashar Assad and the Syrian opposition has reached the Druze villages in the Golan Heights, with three youths from the community joining the ranks of Assad's army.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war two years ago, there have been reports of Israeli Arabs who travel to Turkey and make their way to the Syrian border in order to join rebel groups.
Now, periodic reports have begun emerging of Golan Druze flocking north of the border to join Assad's army.
For years now, Syrian TV has featured a program interviewing Syrians who have formerly lived in the Golan villages. The last episode, aired on Saturday, featured a youth who grew up in the Druze town of Majdal Shams and crossed the border in order to join the Syrian army. The youth, Louis Mer'I, crossed the border together with his friend Nadim Kdamani almost two years ago, and reached a post of the Syrian army, which they promptly joined. Majdal Shams residents said the two reached a certain point along the border where there were no mines, and safely crossed the fence, making their way to the army post.
The two youths served prison terms in Israel for security offenses before deciding to leave.
The two youths' families were unaware of their plan to cross to Syria, but were not surprised, since they were well aware of their radical ideas and support of the Assad regime. A friend of the two told Haaretz that they often held heated arguments with other villagers who demonstrated against Assad.
In the interview to Syrian TV, Mer'i recalled the emotional abuse and pressure in prison and told of his decision to join the Syrian army's battle against the insurgents: "As sons of the Golan, my friend Nadim and I have decided to join the Syrian army and take part in the struggle to defend the homeland, hoping that in the future we will liberate the Golan."
The two were depicted as heroes and patriots willing to make a sacrifice for their homeland.
A month ago a third youth, 28-year-old Rafat Halabi, disappeared and it now turns out that he, too, crossed the border to Syria. Sources in the Golan Heights told Haaretz that not all those who wish to join the Syrian army or the forces supporting the regime are automatically accepted, and that Syrian intelligence interrogates anyone crossing the border before approving his wish to join the forces.
In any case, the sources said that these were the only known cases of youths crossing the border and joining the pro-Assad forces.
Rafat's father told his relatives that his son was an avid supporter of Assad and decided to cross the border without informing his family. It seems that he reached one of the villages on the eastern side of the border and requested to meet the journalist that presents the TV program dealing with the Golan. From that point on, contact was made with the Syrian pro-Assad forces. The families of all three youths expressed concern about their sons, but stressed that they respect their decision.
Events in Syria have split public opinion in the Golan, with most residents supporting the regime, while a minority has openly expressed opposition to Assad. In the past two years there have been several violent clashes between the sides following pro and anti-Assad demonstrations.