Carrying Syrian flags and pictures of President Bashar Assad, hundreds of Arab Druze who live in the Golan Heights gathered on Thursday to mark the annexation of the territory Israel captured from Syria in the 1960s.
Dressed in traditional black garb and white hats, the protesters chanted, pledging loyalty to Syria.
“This land is the land of our fathers and grandfathers, the land is ours. No one has the right to it other than the Syrians,” said Qasem Mahmoud al-Safadi from the village of Majdal Shams.
The Golan was part of Syria until Israel captured it in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel annexed the territory in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.
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The Druze are an Arab minority who practice an offshoot of Islam and whose adherents in Syria have long been loyal to its ruling Assad family.
Around 22,000 Druze live in the Israeli-held Golan. Israel, seeking to further integrate them, has offered citizenship but most Druze rejected it.
Another 120,000 Druze living in Israel make up about two percent of the population and are one of the country’s most integrated minorities.
Once willing to consider returning the Golan for peace with Syria, the Israelis have in recent years argued that the war in Syria and the presence there of an Iranian garrison backing Damascus show they need to keep the strategic plateau.
While only 12 percent of the region’s former Syrian population currently holds Israeli citizenship, the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority says there’s been an uptick in the annual number of applications since 2015. An average of some 130 people from the Druze villages in the Golan applied for Israeli citizenship from 2015 to 2017, compared to about 22 over the three previous years.