Opinion

In the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Syrian-Druze Have Long Been Loyal to Assad. But That's Changing

When the Druze sheikhs of a Golan Heights village wanted to glorify an Assad regime war criminal, we, the younger generation, had enough - even if it meant compromising our opposition to Israel's annexation of our land

A Druze boy wearing a military uniform holds a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Syria's Independence Day, in the Druze village of Ein Kinyeh, Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. April 17, 2018
Ariel Schalit/AP

Twice each year, members of the Syrian-Druze population in the Occupied Golan Heights hold national celebrations. February 14 marks the day they rejected Israeli citizenship (and Israel's authority over Occupied Golan Heights); April 17 marks Syrian Independence Day from the French mandate (back in 1946).

These significant anniversaries were celebrated with community fanfare. Family members from both sides of the Israeli-Syrian border - ripped apart from each other not only by fences but also by the vast minefields remaining from the 1967 war - used to gather on "shouting hills." From here, they used their bare voices to exchange news and updates from loved ones.

That all ended when the Syrian uprising began in 2011. Roads approaching the borders were cut, and our tradition was abandoned. But the importance of these anniversaries, connecting as they do between the Syrian-Druze people in the Golan Heights and their Syrian motherland and families, still holds.

This year on April 17, Syrians in my own village of Ein Kinyeh replaced the traditional march to the "shouting hills" with a ceremony in the village hall. But the ceremony's highlight wasn't shouting to maintain personal connections between the Syrian-Druze and their family and nation, it was the planned unveiling of a statue of a prominent Assad Syrian regime military official, Issam Zahreddine. Syrian regime TV and a number of other media sources covered the ceremony. 

Unsurprisingly, when the Israeli authorities heard about the ceremony, they thwarted it.

As work on the sculpture was finished, Israeli police blocked its transportation to the village square. The Israeli authorities ordered that the sculpture be destroyed; it was an effective warning to the sculptor, who decided to spare himself getting into trouble, that he would destroy the statue himself.

The Israeli police declared that the reasons for this decision were "necessary security measures." Their message was clear: the sculptor would be held personally liable if the statute was erected in the village square.

Whatever the credibility of the police's legal basis for their actions, there are plenty of reasons to oppose the glorification of Zahreddine.

Members of the Druze community walk next to the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as others watch the fighting in Syria's ongoing civil war. June 16, 2015
\ REUTERS

Israeli authorities have a long history of systematically oppressing the freedom of expression in the Occupied Golan Heights; but there's no doubt that Zahreddine is definitely not qualified for glorification.

This ruthless commander fought alongside the Syrian regime's army throughout the Syrian uprising. In 2012, the Syrian opposition declared Zahreddine a war criminal, due to his responsibility for a massacre in Mesraba, where opposition members were publicly executed.

Numerous macabre images of Zahreddine posing next to hanged bodies soon surfaced online. In 2015 these included images of him standing alongside the bodies of ISIS members, which appeared to be tortured and mutilated. Zahreddine is widely considered to be one of the cruelest officers in Assad's army. He died in a mine explosion while fighting against ISIS in Deir E-Zour in 2017.

When the Israeli police prevented Zahreddine's statute from being erected in Ein Kinyeh, a new aspect of the relationship between the Syrian-Druze people, the Assad regime and the Israeli authorities was revealed.

Most of the Syrian-Druze in the Golan Heights have previously remained faithful to Assad's regime, because of the ongoing protection his army provides to Druze communities in Syria. But this is changing.   

Druze men wave the Syrian and Druze flags to demand the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria. Near Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights. Feb. 14, 2018
Oded Balilty/AP

The awareness of humanitarian suffering in Syria caused by the regime, and as an expression of patriotism towards the Syrian people who oppose him, means young Druze in the Golan, in particular, are turning hostile towards Assad. Among the adults and sheikhs, loyalty to Assad remains high.

But in terms of opposition to Israel’s occupation, there is still virtual unanimity. Throughout the history of Israeli occupation in the Golan Heights, acts of suppression by Israeli authorities were invariably met with strong, widespread resistance, that led to widespread arrests among Syrian-Druze. This one was not.

The decision to establish a statue for Zahreddine was internally controversial. Regime supporters, who in Ein Kinyeh are mainly religious elders, had decided in closed chambers to erect the statue.

This decision derived from their desire to reclaim some of the stature and authority they have been losing among the local public. Once proved unquestioned leaders of Druze society, they have steadily lost influence, not least thanks to controversial, reactionary positions such as attempting to ban women from driving. Raising the statue was an opportunity for performative patriotism, and to reinforce – so they thought – the sense of Druze identity and belonging (Zahreddine was Druze).

Israeli soldiers stand on alert on their Merkava tanks after being deployed on the border with Syria near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. March 19, 2014
AFP

They miscalculated. The Israeli violation of our freedom of speech was not met with resistance.

That’s because the vast majority of Syrians in the Golan Heights did not feel attached to the statue because we do not, as a community, feel that Zahreddine should be glorified. Commemorating Zahreddine is not only a morally wrong decision, in a sense it is a criminal one; glorifying his particular animus towards Sunni Muslims could be considered a glorification of hate crimes against non-Druze.

The Golan Druze opposition to the Syrian regime considered this statue a stab in the back, due to the war crimes Zahreddine had committed. Those not as firmly affiliated with any particular side in the Syrian conflict felt, at the very least, that the timing wasn't right.

Regardless of how history will judge Zahreddine in particular, the massacres in Syria are still underway. These sentiments left the elderly elite of Druze sheikhs and regime supporters powerless. Even though the Israeli police ban on the statue was clearly an act of oppression, violating free speech (and one Syrian national narrative), it unusually, but understandably left many indifferent.

For Syrians living under Israeli occupation, the feeling of being let down is compounded. We struggle to navigate between the Assad regime and Israel's occupation.

Protest against Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, in Majdal Shams, a Druze town close to the Israeli-Syrian border. Feb. 14, 2008
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Our opposition to Zahreddine's statue is right. But at the same time, Israel's acts of oppression should not be tacitly accepted, or left unchallenged in the courts and in the press. An occupied people should never comply with the occupier's decisions, especially when they violate freedom of expression.

In this case, the sheikhs and the Syrian-Druze regime supporters decided to cover up the whole episode. They had hoped to accrue social and political capital within the community by reinforcing the patriotic image of Syrian-Druze among the pro-Assad media and supporters, for whom the Druze often have a mythical status as symbols of resistance and patient steadfastness. They saw that the episode was, instead, losing them status - and here, ironically, complying with the Israeli occupier's command help that elderly elite mitigate their political losses.

Our double oppression - the Israeli police and the pro-regime sheikhs – have led the Syrian-Druze public into a new ideological conflict. Resisting the occupier, Israel, leads to a political triumph for the pro-regime sheikhs (and for the Syrian regime itself); resisting the sheikhs' decision potentially creates a precedent and a political victory for Israel’s ongoing occupation.

In this situation, between a rock and a hard place, there are choices of conscience we make, but there can be no overall moral victory.

Wesam Sharaf has just graduated from the University of Haifa, Faculty of Law