Dozens of other Druze then showed up at the border crossing into Jordan at Beit She’an to protest the decision; the sheikhs, who said the visit was purely religious, had planned to cross at Beit She'an.
The police said in a statement that the delegation had been warned against visiting Syria. They said they and other security services continued to act to protect national security and Israelis “from terrorism and attempts by terror groups and hostile countries to recruit Israeli citizens.”
According to the police, members of the delegation planned “to meet with representatives of the Assad government, which is illegal.”
Members of the delegation then blocked the area leading to the crossing. “No one is going in if we don’t go in,” they chanted, announcing that they had no intention of “giving up the right to conduct the visit.”
Sheikh Ali Maadi, the chairman of the committee that organized the trip, called the actions of the police and government “brutal.”
“Israel talks about freedom of worship and prevents religious leaders from visiting holy sites,” he said. “Where is the harm to national security in that?”
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The Druze committee headed by Maadi said the main site on the itinerary was the grave of the Prophet Habil on Mount Qasioun overlooking Damascus, a Druze holy site. The delegation also sought to meet with Druze spiritual leaders in Syria and visit other Druze sites.
“It’s our basic right to visit them, as with other communities visiting countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel,” Maadi said.
The delegation planned to travel by bus to the Nasib Border Crossing in Jordan, where it would enter Syria in coordination with the Syrian authorities. A similar delegation went to Syria via Jordan last December, but the members flew to Damascus from Amman because the Syrian army did not yet control the crossing. It was the first visit by Israeli citizens to Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.
Druze religious leaders previously visited Syria in 2007 and 2010; indictments were filed against delegation members and Said Nafa, a Knesset member for Balad between 2007 and 2013. Nafa was sentenced to one year in prison for organizing a visit.
In 2014, the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court overturned the conviction of 16 sheikhs for visiting an enemy country, Syria. The sheikhs agreed to a deal in which they pledged not to travel to Syria or Lebanon without coordinating with the Israeli authorities.
Noa Shpigel contributed reporting.