In the Line of Rocket Fire, Northern Israel's Druze Had Almost No Place to Hide

Few homes in the Golan Heights have bomb shelters, while public ones are often too far away to reach in time. Residents say schools also lack protection

Inside a bomb shelter in the Golan Heights in May 2018.
Gil Eliyahu

The explosions could be heard easily in the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams. D., a resident, looked up at the sky lit up with rockets, and did not know where to go.

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There was no shelter near her house, and the reinforced space in her home, where she lives with her extended family, is too old and in its current state not fit to stay in for more than a few minutes.  The next day, she went to work bleary-eyed after a sleepless night of anxiety and uncertainty.

The exchanges of fire on the northern border last week left many residents of the Druze towns in the Golan with that same sense of uncertainty. A total of over 26,500 people live in Majdal Shams, Buqata, Masadeh and Ein Kinya, but there are hardly any public shelters.

The newer houses, built since the 1990s, have a reinforced room. They frequently host an extended family; relatives have no choice but to depend on each other.

The residents say that schools also lack protection, that only some schools have reinforced zones and that some of those are not large enough to accommodate all the students. “There used to be a public shelter near the community center, but for some reason they closed it,” H., a resident of Majdal Shams, told Haaretz. Majdal Shams, with 11,000 people, is the largest of the Druze towns. “The schools have no shelters, only the new houses have a reinforced room and most people use them as bedrooms,” H. said.

People in Majdal Shams said last week that one reason for the ongoing neglect is that until now no one believed there could be a missile strike from Syria. Bouts of firing from Syria in the ongoing civil war were not considered a threat. But last week, things changed. “The shooting at night moved something in our heads, made us understand,” a resident said.

Like many other people in Majdal Shams, on Thursday morning H. didn’t send his children to school. After the sleepless night the family had, he thought it was better to let them sleep in. For years, nobody on the town council had taken the issue seriously, he said. “You can’t describe it any other way than negligence,” he said. Elections are scheduled for October, and until then, a caretaker council has been in charge. According to H., although the temporary council has only been there for a short time, it has already pushed changes ahead.

“We heard all the firing. It went right over our heads,” D. said. “It was frightening. There are no public shelters in our area. I woke up and I just stayed in my bedroom. I tried to call the kids and make sure everyone was at home and that everything was all right,” she said.

S., who lives in Buqata, said she sent her children to school on Thursday, but was very worried. The reinforced area in the school is not big enough for everyone. She has no such secure room in her house and has to depend on relatives who live a few dozen meters away.

Kadim Abd Aluli, a ski instructor from Majdal Shams, promised himself he would fix up the family shelter this week. The small shelter is supposed to accommodate more than 20 members of his extended family. Until this week it was full of old mattresses and furniture. He wasn’t afraid of the missiles, he said, but he wanted to fix up the shelter “for those who were feeling pressured and for the kids. I hope nothing will happen.”

Salim Safadi, a former head of the Masadeh local council, thinks that his community of 3,800 people has enough protection. “There are two public shelters here and 60 percent of the houses have a security room. And even so, most people don’t go to a shelter. It’s the mentality here,” he said. But he doesn’t expect a missile attack on Israeli territory.

Neither does H. “I hope war doesn’t break out, but if it does, we won’t be in the middle of it,” he said. “Who thinks about the Golan? Most of the fighting will be with airplanes and helicopters, and the missiles will be long-range. If Iran has an account to settle with Israel, it won’t be with the inhabitants of the Golan Heights, but with the inhabitants of Tel Aviv,” he added.

A lack of shelters is not only a physical risk, according to Prof. Mooli Lahad, a psychotrauma specialist from Tel Hai Academic College. Lahad says the absence of shelters is one of the three causes of post-traumatic stress in children in Arab society.

“When instructions were given this week to go into the shelters, the Druze were helpless because they have no shelters and no reinforced rooms,” Lahad said. “They actually have no way to protect themselves. In the past it was assumed that the Arab population would not be harmed. In 2006 [after the Second Lebanon War], this assumption simply went bankrupt, but nobody bothered to build shelters and see to their protection.”

A study right after the Second Lebanon War of 950 Arab residents of the Galilee indicated that 54 percent of the children showed severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress, as opposed to 18 percent of Jewish children in the region. A repeat study 10 months later showed that the number of Arab children with post-traumatic stress had fallen to 40 percent, compared to 10 percent among Jewish children.

The second of the three main reasons for post-traumatic stress among Arab children, Lahad said, is exposure to the Arab media “which showed the suffering of the [Arab] side without any censorship – torn bodies, injured children, screaming, and on the other hand the Arab media also shows the suffering on the Israeli side.” In other words, the children are exposed twice to harsh scenes, he added.

The third reason, according to Lahad, is that children in Arab society feel exposed to a threat that comes from members of their own religion, “and on the other hand are afraid that we will see them as collaborators and enemies, and so they are trapped.” Lahad said he fears that because none of these conditions has changed, but rather have gotten worse – for example, media exposure – in the next round of fighting even more children will suffer post-traumatic stress.

The problem of the Golan Druze towns is the problem of all the Arab towns in the north. In November 2017, Haaretz reported that according to security officials, about one third of the people living up to 40 kilometers from the border do not have proper protection. Out of this number, 70 percent are Arab. As for the population living within nine kilometers from the border, about 15 percent are not properly protected, and of that number, 60 percent are Arab.

The Interior Ministry responded: “Despite government efforts, there are still gaps and a lack of shelters in the entire Golan Heights, and in fact throughout the country. The entity responsible for this is the Home Front Command, which is funded by the government, and works in cooperation with local authorities.”

The ministry said about 40 million shekels ($11.2 million) was transferred from the ministry’s budget to the Home Front Command for maintenance of shelters in the north and the establishment of emergency headquarters. “On Thursday, following a tour of the Druze communities in the Golan Heights, Interior Minister Arye Dery said that considering the security situation, dozens of small portable shelters would be brought to sensitive points in the communities as an urgent solution to the threat, and funded by the Interior Ministry,” the ministry stated.