Watching Syria From Northern Israel

Many locals in the Druze village of Majdal Shams are tormented by the thought that Syrian President Bashar Assad will not be toppled, even if they can't voice their fears.

All of a sudden, his eyes welled up with tears. It was when he said he dreamed of freedom for his country, a place he has never visited. Wahem Amisha, 30, spent more than 13 years in an Israeli prison for planning to kidnap a soldier. Now, the sole Golan Heights resident released in the Gilad Shalit swap has turned his struggle to democracy in Syria.

When Amisha got out, five months ago, the village did not come en masse to his release party. In Buq'ata - "the Bnei Brak of the Golan Heights," as one of the locals put it - they had not forgiven him for his campaign against Syrian President Bashar Assad, which he began while still behind Israeli bars. A few days later, anonymous individuals came to his home, blasted songs of support for Assad at earsplitting volume, and tried to assault him and his family. Only at a corner table in the trendy and quiet Cafe Beethoven in neighboring Majdal Shams does he feel safe enough to talk about the crimes of the tyrant from Damascus.

Druze golan heights - March 2012

Amisha is convinced that Assad is being aided by Iranian forces, because only part of his military is loyal to him. Amisha is very worried that Assad will survive. He would not like the struggle to be determined by force, including by foreign intervention, because he does not believe a military victory can lead to democracy. More than anything, he would like the struggle to be determined by Syrian residents taking to the streets.

"I am willing to die for democracy in Syria," he says in his quiet voice. "That is the dream, and I don't want it to fade. I don't want the outcome to be that all of those killed were lost in vain and in the end some army comes along and seizes control."

He concedes that life in the occupied Golan Heights is relatively good, "but even if I have to choose between occupation and hell in my homeland - I prefer the homeland."

The piles of snow in the Golan Heights' Druze border towns could not cover over the anomaly of this region: Hebrew on every tongue, an all-Israeli look to most of the young people, decades under Israeli sovereignty - and almost everyone's heart is across the border in neighboring Syria.

Remnants of the cemetery wall of the lost Syrian village Jubata ez-Zeit, on whose ruins the holiday village Rimonim was built at Neve Ativ, peek out from beyond the grandeur of the Israeli hotel, busy during the snowy season. The other Jubata, the Jubata el-Hashab village near Quneitra in Syria, was the site of pitched battles one day last week, between the opposition and the Syrian army. That's the word in the Golan, and those words echoed all the way to Majdal. Here they are convinced that it is no accident that Israel closed its eyes when the Syrian army entered Jubata to suppress the protests, in violation of the United Nations Agreement on Disengagement in the Golan Heights.

In Buq'ata there is already one family with a relative, a Syrian soldier who refused an order, who has been executed during the unrest in Syria. Assad's supporters watch the propagandistic Syrian Television broadcasts; his opponents watch the critical Arab satellite networks. On Sunday evening, for example, Syria's state television aired a story in English about Homs residents' joy at the entry of the Syrian army, which had come to free them from the yoke of terrorist invaders.

The Mount Hermon ski resort was still closed at the beginning of the week following the weekend storm, and dozens of Majdal Shams residents were toiling in their colorful snowsuits to clear the snow, which was piled as high as seven centimeters at the summit. Early on Monday morning, Georgie Kuti was sipping his first cup of coffee at a roadside eatery offering Druze pita with labaneh, an Israeli flag emblazoned on the ski instructor's badge affixed to his coat. His wristwatch displays Hebrew letters in place of numbers.

Kuti is a native of St. Moritz, Switzerland, who lives in Zurich. He's a Jew who comes here every winter to train the Israel Defense Forces' alpine unit and teach disabled IDF veterans to ski. On his camera he shows me a picture that was taken last week: Georgie with a friend, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, during a visit to IDF units on Mt. Hermon. "This is my Zionism," he says in his Swiss Hebrew, and the Druze pita vendor gives him a blank look.

Shefa Abu Jabal joins our table at the Undefined Bar. She is a Majdal girl, wearing tight jeans and boots, well groomed and trendily dressed. In a couple of months she will sit for the Israeli bar exam, having graduated from law school at the University of Haifa. She says she has no intention of practicing law. In the meantime, she is working for a company in Herzliya, BrightWire, analyzing global media in English for Israeli companies. The 26-year-old, also fluent in Hebrew, sips a cocktail from a wide glass. She devotes hours every day to corresponding on Facebook with friends in Syria.

Let's talk politics, Shefa.

"Yalla, nothing's more fun. Where to begin? It's painful for me what is happening in Syria, very painful. The hardest thing is when somebody disappears there from my Facebook and you don't even dare ask why. I'm a big mouth on Facebook and I've already had 10-15 friends in Syria disappear on me. And what hurts the most is how people on the Golan Heights relate to Assad. That is our social punishment.

"Most of the people here support the regime and don't understand the concept of change," she says. "They spread rumors that we are getting money to wage a campaign against Assad, and it is starting to get in the way. A Druze girl who doesn't support Assad is the hardest. It's worse than a Druze guy not supporting Assad. We get verbally abused. If we're not in the mainstream, there must be some hidden reason. They don't believe there are people who deserve freedom and human rights; that they deserve change. It is possible that the change will be bad, like in Egypt, but it is a necessary stage in democracy. Maybe in the beginning they will choose Islam, and afterward they will choose democracy."

Yesterday on Facebook she came out against a physician from her village who equated Bashar Assad with Gamal Abdel Nasser. Shefa wrote that Nasser died because of people like him. "I'm not very nice," she smiles nicely. "The Israeli occupation is smart. They allowed us to get used to it. Our free speech is influenced by Israel. If there weren't free speech, we'd be like the Syrians. That is undeniable. But after everything that happened in Syria, I am no longer sure what will be - there is cooperation between Israel and the regime in Syria. Now I am not sure that my kids won't live under Israeli occupation, too. Assad did not make an effort to get the Golan back. It was important to him to maintain an outside enemy. It's a good deal for both sides. That is another reason why we need to oppose Assad and it's another reason why the majority here, perhaps 80 percent, supports Assad. People like the deal between him and Israel, and want to keep up an Israeli lifestyle."

It is late and Shefa Abu Majdel has to go home. The roads are beginning to ice up, the drive is dangerous, and her parents worry. She disappears into a late-model car along with two girlfriends.

At the Narjis Hotel bar, dozens of young Druze gals and guys party on past midnight, imbibing beer and vodka, munching pretzels, and watching the live broadcast of a Spanish soccer game on Abu Dhabi TV. Nobody can tell who's a Druze and who's a Jew, who is Israeli and who is Syrian.

The baseball cap-sporting bartender studied medicine for five years in Damascus, but didn't graduate. He says Tel Aviv is "nothing compared to Damascus. What a city!" Tuition is free in Syria, most returning med-school graduates successfully pass the Israeli boards, and Majdal is home to many dozens of doctors.

As in the rest of the Druze towns, there are no local elections here: the local council head is appointed by the interior minister, for however long the minister wishes. By law, the council head must be an Israeli citizen, and therefore the possibility of his representing the spirit of the absolute majority of the locals who are not citizens of the state is nil.

Early in the morning, Hassan Fakhr Aldin arrives at his butcher shop, in the central square of Majdal Shams. Channel 2 recently showed him cutting meat and talking about his hero, Bashar Assad. The 64-year-old buys his meat from surrounding kibbutzim; business is slow in winter.

"What is happening in Syria is its own domestic affair. Al-Qaida and the United States and Turkey and France took over Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and only Syria remains now. The government in Syria is based on a secular state that belongs to all sects. There are no Muslims, Christians, Sunnis and Alawis. Everyone is Syrian. Everyone lives together. And that does not suit Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the countries that belong to the Salafis and Al-Qaida. This is why they did what they did in Libya, in Egypt and in Yemen. They thought they could get away with it in Syria, too. But Assad watches over Syria to keep it as it was, for all sects. Now the Salafis and Al-Qaida are out of Homs and everything will be all right."

And what about the thousands of people killed?

"I will tell you about the people killed: In Paris, say, with Sarkozy, when there are protests - are there no people killed? And what do they do in Saudi Arabia? They caught a woman driving a car and gave her 100 lashes. And what do they do in Turkey to counter terror? Not to mention Israel. All over the world, he who comes to slay you, you slay him. The Salafis and Al-Qaida came from Lebanon and Iraq into Syria, to make it a Muslim country.

"In Syria, too," he says, "there are people who did wrong, exactly like in Israel. The [former] president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, is in prison, and there was that Kurd, Yitzhak Mordechai, and Olmert, and Sharon's son. They have that in every country in the world, including Syria. But Assad, heaven forbid - he is very good. There is nothing to be said. His father, what was he like? When his son Basel, of blessed memory, died, I was at his home to pay my respects. A very ordinary house. In Majdal Shams, there are more beautiful houses. Only around Assad, there are people who are no good. They should be fired.

"The majority in Majdal Shams thinks as I do. It is fed up with Al Jazeera - it's all lies. The women and children were killed by the Salafis and Al-Qaida, who came from outside. I don't want Syria to become Muslim; we are all human beings and we all came from God. I hear that Benjamin Netanyahu said nothing, but Ehud Barak said: Another two weeks Assad will fall, and it has been 11 months and Assad isn't falling."

Salman Fakhr Aldin, a human-rights activist and journalist who opposes the Assad regime, dismisses all of the above and gives us a learned and riveting lecture on the scale of corruption in Syria. He also dismisses the claim that Assad is good for the Druze: "I tell the people who talk like that that they and God alone are the only ones in the world who kill a camel to feed a coyote."

At his small house in Majdal Shams, Aldin has for the past year been grieving the death of his son, a television man, in a car accident near Ramallah. It is early in the morning when he offers his guests freshly squeezed orange juice with vodka. He has noticed that the students from the village who Skype from Damascus with their parents in the Golan are huddled in coats and sweaters. They say in a fearful tone that everything is fine in Damascus, but in fact there is no electricity and they are freezing cold.

The European Pressphoto Agency photographer Atef Safadi goes even further: "The regime in Syria is unique. There is no regime like it in history. Even the Nazis, if you opposed them, did not go after your son. If you are a wanted man in Syria, all of your relatives are wanted."

In 1994, when Basel Assad was killed in a car accident, Safadi ripped Assad's picture off a wall in the Majdal Shams square. Years later, when relatives of his went to Damascus to study, they were interrogated by Syrian intelligence about that torn-down picture.

A few days ago, early in the morning, Safadi spotted unknown individuals erasing graffiti slogans proclaiming "Assad is a murderer" and "The people want to topple the regime."

"I want to see Assad locked up for 100 years at The Hague. But his supporters here want him forever," says Safadi. "The majority is against Assad but will not dare to say so. Assad's supporters are the most active, because it's easy for them to have their identities known. I want the Golan to be returned to Syria, but not under Assad's rule. The Golan is Syrian. It's true that we have things relatively good economically, but so what? I could also go to America and make more money. We belong in Syria."

The streets of Majdal Shams are streaming with water, and snow is still piling up on the sidewalks, making them difficult to navigate. "In the snow you don't walk with hands in your pockets," a local comments, and I quickly take my hands out of my coat.