On the Golan Heights, the People Are (Mostly) With Assad

A conversation with one of the relatively few Syrian residents of the Israeli Golan who is actively supporting the rebels who are fighting Assad's regime.

At 6 P.M., the torch-bearers marched to the monument in the center of the village. A Syrian flag fluttered in the breeze and everyone sang the Syrian national anthem: “The districts of Syria are towers of the heights, like the zenith of the skies ... and shall the blood of every martyr be ink?”

It was Syria’s Martyrs’ Day on Monday and in the occupied Golan Heights, they put up pictures of their fallen: the Syrian defense minister and a number of the members of President Bashar Assad’s family who were killed a while back in an attack in Damascus. As far as the demonstrators are concerned, they are the only fallen persons: These people will not mention the tens of thousands of civilians who have been massacred. Official Syria is here and pictures of its leader hang on the railings of the monument.

The Druze clerics, the sheikhs, sat in their black robes and white headdresses, looking like penguins, as at the foot of the monument a small boy wearing the uniform of a Syrian army officer stood and joined in the singing of the anthem.

Maybe in Israel, the slogan is “the people are with the Golan” − but in the Golan, most of the people are with Assad. Monday’s gathering was one in a series in support of the Damascus regime, in the heart of the village of Buqat’a, which is under Israeli sovereignty. If in the past, the Syrian residents of the Golan, whom Israelis prefer to call Druze, were split between a handful of supporters of Israel and a majority that supported the regime in Damascus, today the Golan Heights are split between supporters of the regime − the majority − and supporters of the rebels, the minority.

The civil war is here too: Far from Israel’s attention, there are stormy demonstrations on the Heights, and there have even been a few violent incidents between the two camps. The Golan is torn − a little Syria just like greater Syria.

Not far from Assad Square, Wiyam Amasha sat in his pleasant home and showed us on his laptop his Facebook page with the horror pictures taken this week in the town of Banias in Syria, as well as his sharply worded correspondence with the leaders of the rebels, some of whom are only half an hour’s drive from here, beyond the border.

Amasha was released from Israeli prison as part of the Gilad Shalit deal, in 2011, and since then he has become one of the leaders of the supporters of the rebels in the Golan. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison for planning the abduction of a soldier for bargaining purposes, and served 12 years of his term before he was released. On the day of his release the village organized a mass welcome for him, but Amasha didn’t show up for it because of the local sheikhs’ support for Assad. Since then the split in his village has become an abyss. He says his release caused ferment in Buqa’ta.

The Golan is still green and mostly empty, its Jewish settlements and Druze villages prospering after another successful ski and apple season. The Syrian landscape viewed from the lookout point at the foot of Mount Bental is a deceptive panorama of tranquillity. But stray shells fell here on the day of our visit; the day before, there were even two false alarms sounded in Buqa’ta when it seemed the winds of war were beginning to blow here, after the aerial attack on the weapons depot in Damascus.

Amasha’s father, Mahmoud, an insurance agent, was attacked a few months ago by young men from the village, run over by a car and hospitalized in Safed because of his support for the rebels. The social pressure here is unambiguous, unrelenting and sometimes aggressive: The people are with Assad.

Every Friday in recent months supporters of the rebels have held tiny demonstrations at the square in nearby Majdal Shams. Recently, they have cut down on these events because of attacks on them.

Not deterred

A man like Amasha, however, isn’t deterred. In the mornings he works with his tractor in the pear orchards of one of the Golan’s Jewish settlements, and he devotes the rest of his time to the rebels. Not long ago he corresponded with one of the rebel leaders, Ghassan Zeidan, a Syrian officer from the village of Khader Sharq. That ended when Zeidan was killed by Assad’s Shabiha. It is important to Amasha that in Syria, which is by his definition “his country,” the people know that not all the Golan Druze support Assad.

In his living room, he has two flags on display: that of official Syria and that of the revolution, which are only slightly different from each other. Alongside them are displayed prisoners’ handicraft projects from the Israeli prison.

How many people here support the rebels?

“I object to this survey-like question. You can do a survey in a democratic society, in a society where you’re allowed to say everything. There are friends from the village who meet me and don’t tell me their opinions, and then afterward write to me on Facebook under a different name that they support me and the rebels.

“There is an absolute social regime here − social pressure that makes everyone who deviates from the line into a lone wolf and a leper. There are people who are afraid to reveal their opinion, so that their ability to earn a living won’t be affected. A lot of my father’s clients have left him since he became an opposition activist. There is also fear of the Mukhabarat, the Syrian internal security organization, even though I don’t think they can do anything here any more.”

Amasha’s name is on an Internet blacklist of those condemned to death − five residents of the Golan Heights for whose execution the Mukhabarat has called because of their support for the rebels. The Israeli Shin Bet security service, he says, is also keeping what is happening under surveillance and the Israel Police is taking an interest in maintaining quiet.

“Assad’s opponents are not supporters of Israel. But they do think only a democratic Syria can liberate the Golan, in peace or in war. It’s precisely Assad’s supporters who want Israel to stay here [in the Golan], and they accuse us of treason,” he says. “What is happening in Syria is genocide. This isn’t just emotions speaking − it’s a fact. Genocide in an ethnic context.”

Amasha has a pen pal in the village of Beida on the outskirts of the town of Banias in Syria. They talk on Skype and correspond on Facebook. This week his friend told him on Skype: “I am waiting for my turn to die.”

About 250 civilians have been killed in recent days in shelling of the village, for the sole reason that they are Sunnis. Amasha shows us the uncensored pictures on his Facebook page: dozens of corpses of children and women, who have been shot in the head and heaped up together in a pile; the corpse of a young man whose legs were crushed before or after he was shot. There are even greater horrors than these that we will not describe here. This week Amasha spoke with his friend in Beida and he is still alive. Of the bombardment last weekend of the weapons depots that have been attributed to Israel, he says they have helped the regime.

Amasha: “They have strengthened Assad publicly and have damaged him militarily. The bombardments have weakened the rebels and the support for them, and that’s what I am afraid of. I am afraid that here, too, in the Golan, they will say: Now we have a joint enemy, Israel. People didn’t sleep here this week for fear of war. But Hezbollah isn’t what it used to be anymore: Now it is babbling a lot and doing little − like the Iranians. If it attacks Israel, a civil war will break out in Lebanon because the majority there wants quiet and Hezbollah is no longer as strong as it was. The Syrian army, too, doesn’t have the ability to embark on a war against Israel. There will not be a war because there isn’t another side that will stand up against Israel.

“However, there are a lot of Syrians who would drop everything and support Assad against Israel. Therefore those attacks are damaging to the revolution. A few weeks ago someone from Daraa arrived here via Jordan. It was the first time I’d met with a Syrian. And what does he tell me? That it’s too bad Israel hasn’t gone into Daraa and liberated it.

“Even if the regime falls, we will have big problems. There are jihadists and Islamists among the rebels, but most of the rebels don’t want to wipe Israel off the map. That’s just not true. I was a member of the supreme council for coordination with the rebels and I participated in a lot of meetings and discussions on Skype. There they aren’t talking, like the Iranian regime, about destroying Israel. They are unbelievably rational. They are talking about liberating the Golan in peaceful ways, they understand Israel is an existing fact and they don’t have any intention of going back 70 years into the past. I heard opinions there that surprised even me.”

Amasha does not think an end is in sight, however; the regime is too strong. Democracy too is far off, he says: That will be a matter of a long and ongoing educational effort. In the meantime he is spraying the Kedmat Zvi pear orchards from his tractor. He has two employers, one of them Orthodox and one who was wounded in a tank in wartime, and he says of them: “We are almost friends. They trust my work and I work with all my heart. I want these farmers to have good fruit. I see the old Syrian houses that the moshav is built next to and I say to myself that the day will come when we will liberate the Golan. I hope this will happen peacefully. I also hope it will be in the framework of the developing friendship between me and those farmers.”

And on his Facebook page this week, Amasha uploaded the scenes of horror from Banias. Next to them he wrote (of Golan Heights Druze): “To all the people who are spending their morning hours in the French cafes on the Golan − just remember that this is happening this morning in Banias.”