The Druze in Israel have launched a campaign to collect donations for their cousins in Syria, despite warnings in the community in both countries that such assistance is likely to anger other Syrians.
The spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze, Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, has even discussed the subject at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, as Russia continues its military assistance for the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The idea for the aid campaign came last week following protests in the Jabal al-Druze region in southwestern Syria. The demonstrators were protesting Damascus’ canceling of the subsidy for basic food products, sending prices significantly higher.
Majdi Naim, a resident of the city of As-Suwayda in southwestern Syria, published a letter calling on the Israeli Druze to halt their efforts.
“We're not suffering from hunger and haven’t reached a situation of begging for alms,” he wrote, adding that “such assistance, with the encouragement of Israel and its allies in the community, will have severe consequences and cause social and ethnic polarization in Syria.”
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians from various ethnic groups moved to the area during the Syrian civil war, increasing the competition for resources.
Israeli Druze seek to send basic assistance such as food, emergency equipment for the winter and cash. In Israeli Druze villages in the Galilee and the Haifa area, the campaign is being led by activists on the Druze liaison committee with Syria.
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In the past, the committee organized visits by Druze clerics to Syria via Jordan, without coordination with the Israeli authorities.
Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze, has even spoken with Russia’s special envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov. Speaking to Haaretz from Moscow, Tarif said his interlocutors did not answer his question on whether the Syrian government would allow aid through the Quneitra Crossing in the Golan Heights.
Tarif also asked Russian officials to help secure a route for aid to Jabal al-Druze via Jordan. The Assad regime refuses to consider the Quneitra Crossing an official crossing with Israel. It forbids the entry of Israeli citizens or goods there except for the residents of the Druze villages in the Golan and their agricultural produce.
Syrian activist Faraj Sakar, a resident of the village of Hader near the Israeli border, also published an open letter, saying that most Druze in Syria opposed the sending of aid from Israel.
“As far as we’re concerned, Israel is an enemy country, as it has been for generations, and now Israel will present itself as a humanitarian country due to a few trucks sent to Syria,” he wrote. “Everyone knows that this may help a few families, but no more than that.”
A director of the aid campaign in Israel, Ahsan Marad, says the committee members are familiar with this view, but they are still keen to help Druze on the Syrian side. “Along with those who are opposed, there are lots of people who need this aid and are afraid to talk,” he said.
“We’ve decided to send assistance that includes food products and basic emergency equipment, not cash, because money can reach other places. We aren’t looking for headlines and know that there are people who will use this to ride a wave, but for us the objective is sacred – to ease people’s suffering. It has nothing to do with identifying with Israel.”
According to Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office, Gantz told Tarif that defense officials would work to get the aid to the Syrian Druze, whether via the Quneitra Crossing or elsewhere.