Israel is not maintaining contact with extremist rebels in Syria who are seeking to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told a group of concerned Druze leaders in Israel on Friday. Israel’s policy has not changed, he said, and Israel has in fact recently issued warnings to the rebels not to enter the Druze enclave around Hader, a village straddling the border on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
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Over the past week, Druze in Israel and on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights have expressed concern about the renewed fighting between Sunni rebel groups and Syrian government forces in Syria, near Israel’s northern border.
There were also exchanges of fire in Hader between the rebels and local Druze militias that in recent years have been acting in coordination with the Assad regime. A Druze girl was killed in a recent bombardment of Hader.
In a Facebook post last week, Druze Knesset member Akram Hasoon (Kadima) criticized Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and accused the IDF of assisting forces from the rebel Nusra Front in attacking Hader. Rafik Halabi, the head of the Daliat al-Carmel council, a Druze town near Haifa, also recently voiced a complaint about Israeli policy.
Among those attending the Friday meeting with Eisenkot in the Druze town of Julis were the community’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, and other senior Druze figures, including retired IDF officers.
Participants at the meeting who spoke to Haaretz said Eisenkot denied in the clearest terms that Israel was maintaining ties with extremist Islamist factions among the ranks of the rebels in Syria. He did confirm, however, as had former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, that Israel is at times in touch with local militias on the Syria side of the Golan that are not considered extremist to ensure that quiet is maintained on the border.
According to sources present at the meeting, Eisenkot assured his audience that there is no change in Israel policy with respect to what is happening across the border. Israel, he said, has warned the rebels in Syria not to attempt to conquer the Druze village of Hader, but if forces inside Hader open fire on Israeli territory, the IDF would respond. For his part, Sheikh Tarif said he would view such a response on the IDF’s part as justified.
In recent years, the IDF has acted against several Druze cells from Hader which, inspired by Iran and the Lebanese-based Shi’ite group Hezbollah, undertook attacks along the border with Israel. Two of the members of these networks, Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar and Jihad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah commander, were killed in aerial assassination operations that were attributed to Israel, although there was never an official claim of responsibility.
The head of the IDF Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who attended the meeting, said claims of IDF support for the Nusra Front in battles on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are without foundation. “That’s a stronger denial than any Facebook post,” he commented, in apparent reference to allegations made by Israeli Druze politicians.
Anxieties among Druze in Israel rise every time the battles with the rebels in the Hader area on the Syrian side intensify, arousing concern over the well-being of the residents of the village, who have many relatives in Israel. Nevertheless, Hader’s residents recently rejected an offer to have Israeli civilian aid transferred to them via Druze villages on the Israeli side of the border. They were apparently concerned about how this would affect their relations with the Assad regime.
In August of last year, on two occasions, Druze attacked IDF ambulances carrying wounded rebels from Syria who were being transported to receive medical treatment in Israel. In one incident at Moshav Neveh Ativ in the Golan Heights, Druze protesters committed a lynching in which one wounded rebel was killed and another severely beaten. In addition, the IDF medical crew was attacked.
Two of the attackers were recently convicted in a plea agreement in Nazareth District Court. They were sentenced to relatively lenient prison terms of several years.