For Israeli Druze, the War in Syria Is a Horrifying Spectator Sport

In this hidden spot in the Golan Heights, the fighting in Syria is just 300 meters away. For those who have come to watch, every exploding shell is harrowing: It’s their relatives who are being battered.

Druze observing the fighting in Syria, from the Golan, September 2016.
Alex Levac

A phantasmagorical scene. There’s a flock of sheep on the lower slopes of a hill, moving northward, accompanied by two shepherds, one in front, the other behind. The sheep are white punctuation marks against the black basalt earth. They attack the summer’s-end, withered remnants of a pasture. The shepherds look tranquil. What could bother a shepherd, even if he’s Syrian? An idyllic scene. Animals and men move forward slowly.

Suddenly, there’s a tremendous boom, muffled but powerful. Within seconds, clouds of dust tower skyward, a few dozen meters away from the flock. Frightened birds flutter in confusion, we are shaken, but the sheep and shepherds proceed serenely on their way. As though a shell had not fallen near them, as though no war were raging.

There’s a concealed site in the Israeli part of the Golan Heights, between the Druze villages of Bukata and Majdal Shams, east of the main road and adjacent to the fence marking the border, from where the war in Syria – which is singeing the border area between the Israeli and Syrian sections of this plateau – can be observed with the unaided eye. Stretch out your arm and touch it, this accursed war. This is the closest place to it. The road leading here winds between apple orchards and rock-strewn soil. It ends with two harrowing signs: “Mortal danger. Military zone. Anyone who passes takes his life in his hands.” Two positions fortified with basalt rocks; past them, the trail ends at the fence and a sealed gate. The war is across the fence.

A few photographers representing the foreign press are sitting on two nearby hills, among them Atef Safadi from the European News Agency, waiting for their frame, like patient fishermen. One of them took a photo from here of the Syrian plane that Israel shot down two years ago as it was going down. After bombing rebel positions across the way, the plane had approached the border but did not cross it, the photographer says.

A few people from local Druze villages join us here, ostensibly to witness the fate of their relatives in the village opposite that’s being shelled. Occasionally phone calls are made to the village, or text messages sent, to find out what’s happening and how people are doing. Fantastical. On weekends, Israeli Druze come here, too.

Someone brought a used sofa, bright-blue, here from Bukata. Old sofas were also brought to the hills around Sderot some years ago, so residents could sit back and view the sandy table known as the Gaza Strip as it was being bombarded by Israel in Operation Cast Lead and Operation Protective Edge. The people from Sderot cheered every bomb with a lust for revenge and a show of evil.

Here, opposite Syria, every exploding shell is harrowing for those who have come to watch: It’s their aunt and uncle who are being battered, and they are deeply anxious for them. The echoes of the shelling are unceasing. From side to side, shell after shell, and columns of smoke in their wake. War. It’s not the horrors of Aleppo, more a war of attrition that seems to have clear rules of its own. It’s said in the Golan Heights that Israel is preventing the Nusra Front rebels from capturing Khader, in Syria. All they can do is try to wear it down and terrorize its residents. Other than the area of Khader, however, a large Druze village of 11,000 people whose homes are scattered on the slopes of the hill across the way, the rebels here effectively control the whole boundary line with Israel, with either its support or its tacit agreement.

Khader is on the left, defended by the local militia and the Syrian army, while to the right, seeking shelter among the trees, are the Nusra Front fighters. There’s one of their mortars, camouflaged under a tree. Once in a while, the fighters’ heads pop into view, too. The local experts with the sophisticated lenses have spotted a dushka – a pickup truck on which is mounted the MAG machine gun that is now shooting at Khader. The village responds with shelling. Is there no danger that the rebels will fire, by mistake or deliberately, at the hill we’re on, where Druze are also to be found? “That’s a red line,” the locals say, and add, “but you never know.”

A jeep approaches the hill, raising dust. It’s Zahira and Samir Khather, from the Druze town of Majdal Shams. Zahira’s mother’s sister, 70-year-old Nejiba, lives across the way in Khader; her niece is worried about her and about her children and grandchildren. Zahira didn’t go to work today – she’s a nursing care worker in a nearby village – and her husband suggested that they come here, to watch the war. She last saw her aunt, who lives only a few hundred meters from her, nine years ago, at a family reunion in Amman. Zahira spoke to her this morning by phone.

The situation in Khader is dire, Nejiba told her. There is no food. For the past 10 days they’ve eaten only pita, olive oil and za’atar (hyssop). Nejiba’s whole family is ensconced in the kitchen, the most protected part of the house. At night they hear the cries of the wounded from elsewhere in the village. There’s no way to move them to Damascus, as the highway is blocked and the byways are vulnerable to snipers.

According to Zahira, there is no doctor in her aunt’s village, much less a hospital. The women treat the wounded. Israel takes in only wounded from the Nusra Front. “They only help the terrorists,” Samir says furiously, reflecting the anger of many Golan Heights Druze over Israel’s support for the rebels. Some are even ready to swear that Israel is taking part in shelling Khader, so as to assist the rebels. But the rebels stopped before taking over the village, apparently because of Israel.

Mobilization of Israel’s Druze is the best guarantee of safety for Khader. Israel’s Arabs could learn something from the Druze about rallying in support of their brethren. The word in the Golan Heights is that Druze soldiers in the Israeli army would not stand idly by if Khader were taken.

Samir, who operates heavy mechanical equipment, was involved in the construction of the border fence opposite us, shortly before the eruption of the civil war. Not even a bird can get across it, he says.

Not long ago, Zahira underwent surgery at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. A wounded Syrian rebel was in the room next to hers. She and her husband were appalled by the fine treatment he received: “He woke up and suddenly saw a Jewish nurse next to him. He thought he was in paradise. How she pampered him – and he’s a terrorist. He didn’t even look like a human being. Your media says that Israel is helping Syrian civilians. That’s a lie. They are not civilians. They are not human beings.”

Aunt Nejiba’s grandchildren, like all the children in Khader, are suffering psychologically and are in constant anxiety. They can’t sleep. Now, as the shelling intensifies, Zahira sends her aunt a WhatsApp message and in a few minutes gets a reply: “Situation very bad. Hoping that the rebels will soon retreat, toward Hamraa.” Nejiba’s son Hassan is a member of the local militia. He’s stationed on the ridge across the way and possibly also engaged in shelling. Here, the war in Syria is a family drama.

There’s a beehive of activity in the valley between us and the war. An Israel Defense Forces jeep draws close to the fence and drives off quickly. “The dogs have a dushka,” someone says, as Khader takes yet another pounding. This morning, the school at the edge of the village was targeted, and now the rebels are aiming at the cemetery, where the Syrian army has an outpost. It’s a drop-by-drop war, and the fighting looks more spectacular at night, when the shells have a red tail.

Khader al-Khads – Khader News – to which everyone here listens via mobile phones, reports that two men in the village were killed this morning in the shelling. South of Khader lies Jubata al-Khashab, which is under the rebels’ control; it is their regional center, where they go after completing an attack shift. A pickup drives by fast, going south. The Majdal Shams commentators explain that the fighters in it have completed their shift and are heading back to their village beyond the grove. They add that the rebels almost always launch their shells after 11 A.M., when the sun blinds the militiamen in Khader.

To the north is another rebel-held village, Beit Jinn. It’s besieged by the Syrian army, but has an escape hatch to Lebanon. The rebels’ goal is to open a corridor between their village and Beit Jinn. Khader lies in between.

“If Khader falls, there is no more Syria on the border,” someone tells us, referring to the army of President Bashar Assad, whom most of the Druze support. Another small Druze village beyond the ridge, Harfa, has already been abandoned, its residents fleeing to Khader.

Another boom. And another. A few weeks ago, a Syrian army helicopter dropped explosive barrels on the rebels’ position across from us. Next to their village, Jubata, is the gate from which their wounded – and their wounded only – are evacuated to Israel. Damascus is an hour’s drive; Aleppo is five hours from Damascus. Everything is so close.

Marey Jalaa, a local photographer for AFP, the French News Agency, studied dentistry in Damascus for four years and often visited Aleppo. It was a beautiful, vibrant city, he recalls now. He didn’t complete his studies, because he could no longer tolerate life in Syria, even before the war, whose end no one sees – including in the sector that’s a mere arm’s length away.