Without Approval, Israeli Druze Sheikhs Make First Visit to Syria Since 2011

The visit’s official purpose is to console mourners following a series of fatal ISIS attacks in late July, which killed some 268 people

The Druze sheiks from Israel at the Damascus airport, on September 6, 2018.
Wajdi Khatar/Almasadr

A delegation of 54 sheikhs and clergymen from Druze villages in the Galilee and Carmel region traveled to Syria on Thursday via Amman. This was the first visit by Druze clergymen to Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011.

The delegation was received at Damascus Airport by Syrian government officials and taken immediately to the As-Suwayda region, south of Damascus, where most of Syria’s Druze community is concentrated. The visit’s official purpose is to console mourners following a series of fatal ISIS attacks in late July, which killed some 268 people, but also to meet families whose relatives were abducted by ISIS.

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Druze spiritual leader Ali Maadi, who was supposed to head the delegation, was forbidden to leave Israel and was interrogated by the police for planning a visit to what is classified by law as an enemy state.
Maadi is head of a liaison committee that the clergymen have set up to connect Druze community members in the Arab world. The committee had organized the visit in coordination with the Syrian embassy in Amman, which arranged the delegation’s entry to Damascus.

The visit was not coordinated with the Israeli authorities, Maadi told Haaretz. The clergymen left Israel before dawn. 

Maadi said the clerics had wanted to cancel the visit when he was prohibited from joining them, but he insisted they take the trip in the face of Israel’s opposition to it. 

The delegation was joined in Syria by Druze sheikhs from Lebanon, who were to hold meetings with their Israeli and Syrian counterparts. The sheikhs also planned to visit holy sites before returning to Amman on Sunday.

Maadi told Haaretz that he and the other clergymen are not afraid of any step Israel may take against them.

“We are visiting our families, brothers and community members in Syria as well as holy sites, like all the communities that visit their holy sites, and I see nothing wrong with that,” he said.

>> Read more: Echoes of Deadly ISIS Bombing on Syrian Druze Reverberate in Lebanon | Analysis

In an interview with the Nazareth-based Ashams Radio, the sheikh said the Syrian authorities’ cooperation in organizing the trip indicates their confidence of their full control and the stability in all the areas the delegation plans to visit.

After Israeli Druze clergymen visited Syria and Lebanon in 2007 and 2010, Israel indicted them for visiting an enemy state. In May 2014, at the end of a four-year legal battle, a Nazareth court rescinded the conviction of 16 sheikhs who had taken the trips. Under an agreement with the state, the sheikhs undertook not to go to Syria or Lebanon again without coordinating with Israeli authorities.

Some delegation members who traveled to Syria on Thursday were among the group that had visited there previously. They too said the trip was coordinated only with Syria, not with Israel.

It is not clear whether Israel will ignore the visit, or take measures against them after their return, a move that would further exacerbate the tense relations with the Druze community over the nation-state law, sources told Haaretz.