Hoping to Ward Off Nusra Front, Israel Is Helping Syrian Villagers Across Border

The Israelis are evacuating wounded to Israeli hospitals and providing medicine, food, clothing and blankets in the winter. The army hopes the village heads will shun extremist Sunni rebels.

Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, September 2016.
AP / Ariel Schalit

A senior officer in the Northern Command described Israel’s Syria policy as follows: “judgment, caution, trying not to be swept into the war, and strictly keeping to the red lines.”

In the north over the years, the Netanyahu government appears to have been particularly cautious and wise. Israel sticks to its strategy – it responds to fire on its territory and acts to prevent weapons smuggling to Hezbollah (as the prime minister admitted in his UN speech). In the meantime, it knows not to become entangled in something unnecessary.

This policy was tested this week during the increased firing onto the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. Both before and after the Syrian cease-fire, rebel groups tried to push the regime’s forces from its last enclaves near the border at Quneitra and the Druze village of Khadr. Occasionally, the regime fired accidentally into Israeli territory.

On Monday night, when Israeli planes responded by attacking Syrian army positions, the Syrians fired ground-to-air missiles. The missiles were powerful SA5s, a direct message from President Bashar Assad. For the first time, the head of the Golan Regional Council, Eli Malka, called for a stronger military response, but the government kept calm.

While the war has been going on for years on the other side of the border, tourism to the Golan has grown and the orchards are being cultivated impressively close to the fence. For the most part, the Israel Defense Forces not only maintains the calm, it barely impinges on the daily life of the people.

In the Druze villages there’s a trend, albeit low-key, toward strengthening ties with Israel. Photos of Assad have been taken off of the walls of restaurants, and the Israeli flag flies over the school being built in the village of Buqata. Indirectly it seems the Syrian civil war has ensured that the Golan Heights will remain part of Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel is helping the people of villages on the other side of the fence. The IDF has set up a unit in the Golan, under the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, to be headed by a lieutenant colonel. The unit aims to coordinate assistance to the villages – evacuating wounded to Israeli hospitals and providing medicine, food, clothing and blankets in the winter. This work is underway along the fence in areas under the control of local militias, from Quneitra in the north to the area held by an Islamic State offshoot, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. That area sits at the southern end of the Syrian border.

These efforts are designed to assist the volunteer work of Israeli NGOs including Amaliah, coordinated by Moti Kahana, and Israeli Flying Aid, founded by Gal Lusky. These humanitarian efforts, happening far from the public eye, are helping save lives in Syria.

Defense officials also see a benefit: helping maintain quiet on the border, keeping away elements that could pose danger – Assad’s army and Hezbollah, but also extremist Sunni groups like the Nusra Front. The Front, which has split from Al-Qaida, is allied with the Sunni groups in the Syrian Golan. The Israelis hope that the village heads near the border will want to ensure that the Nusra Front doesn’t launch attacks against Israel from its area.

Caution in these efforts are linked to an Israeli trauma of the past – assistance to the inhabitants, mostly Christian, of the security zone in southern Lebanon in the late 1970s. That alliance helped lead to the quagmire of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon war. It ended with the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon under Prime Minister Ehud Barak in May 2000. The past has shown that the way from the Good Fence to “Waltz with Bashir” isn’t very long.

Israeli Druze watching the Syrian civil war across the border, September 2016.
Ariel Schalit

The strange Druze angle

The Id al-Adha holiday, which the Druze also celebrate, brought to the Golan many visitors from the Galilee and Mount Carmel who wanted to get the latest news on their relatives on the Syrian side of the border.

The days of the hill where Druze could shout news to each other over the border – scenes like in the film “The Syrian Bride” – are long gone. The same can be said about Israeli Druze studying in Damascus.

All this has been replaced by Druze concerns about their coreligionists in the Khadr enclave, and far from there, at Jabal Druze near the Syria-Jordan border.

The Druze have usually kept their distance from the Syrian civil war, so relative to other groups, they’ve suffered less. Their local militias protect their villages and sometimes, as in Khadr, they’ve let the regime and Hezbollah operate in their area against the rebels. This month this approach put them in direct conflict with the rebel groups.

These developments have renewed concerns among the Druze in the Galilee and the Golan. On Facebook, MK Akram Hasoon (Kulanu), accused Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman of giving “unprecedented Israeli backing” to the Nusra Front, which is “bombarding old people and children” in Khadr.

According to Hasoon, the Sunni fighters are receiving advanced technological equipment and taking over positions from which the IDF had cleared out Assad’s troops. In fact, Druze leaders in Israel concede that this time it was the other way around: From the village of Khadr, armed men fired on rebel positions after the Syrian army had left the area on orders from Damascus.

Lieberman’s office and the IDF rejected Hasoon’s claims. It was Lusky from the aid group who issued a sharp retort. The Druze in Khadr had for years hosted Hezbollah, and networks operated by Hezbollah launched attacks on the IDF in the Golan. “Those who use weapons and take an active part in the fighting by choosing sides should take responsibility for their actions,” she said.

Lusky also warned against pressure by the Israeli Druze on the government to save the residents of Khadr. She said efforts should focus on humanitarian aid, “not sitting and doing nothing in the face of the suffering of the Syrian people and the atrocities Assad is committing.”

On Tuesday, five Druze religion students climbed a hill where an Israeli tank stood on the northern part of the border. From the hill the battles outside Khadr couldn’t be seen at all (to see them, you have to go farther north). But that didn’t stop the students from plaguing an Israeli officer with far-fetched conspiracy theories.

Israel, they explained to him, is constantly helping wounded Nusra Front members. (“We saw them with their old people in the hospital in Nahariya.”) Then it sends the Sunni rebels to fight the regime and assail their Druze brothers in the Syrian Golan.

And what about Assad? “He’s okay, he’s great. He does what needs to be done.”

On the hill near the border, the laws of Syria, in fact the laws of the entire region, were thus presented in sharp relief by Israeli citizens of all people. One of them said he had served in the IDF. As long as the killer is from my side, all the means he chooses are legitimate.