Majdal Shams, Golan Heights – The celebrations in the central squares of this Druze village on the slopes of the Hermon Mountains were so raucous last Monday night that Rawad Shoufi could make out the music and the chants from blocks away.
Thousands of residents had poured into the streets after getting word that a Druze mob nearby had attacked an Israeli military ambulance. Though two Israelis in the ambulance were lightly wounded, the real targets of the mob were two wounded Syrians being transported to an Israeli hospital. One was killed and the other seriously wounded in the attack by the Druze, who are loyal to their fellow Druze – some of them family members – living in Syria and loyal to the regime of President Assad.
The incident, one of several such attacks on Israeli ambulances in recent days, underscores the conflicting identity issues for the Israeli Druze community in the Golan Heights, which numbers about 130,000.
As part of a little known Arab minority, the Druze are an ethnic-religious sect known for strong loyalty to their host country. In today’s chaotic Middle East, Israeli Druze take pride in their service in the Israeli army but are deeply concerned about their families living in Syria. As a result, they have criticized Israel for taking medical care of wounded rebel soldiers fighting the Assad regime.
Describing the scene Monday night, Shoufi, a 23-year-old metal worker, said, “They were chanting ‘Druze, Druze, Druze.’ They were playing music from the Druze mountain’’ in Syria.
Basel Abu Saleh, a 20-year-old student, was at a brother-in-law’s home that looks eastward across the border into Syria when he got a phone call from friends. A picture he took of the celebration showed dozens of Druze merry makers — some of them dressed in black religious gowns and white caps — waving Druze and Syrian flags.
“They were celebrating that they had helped stop a terrorist,’’ Abu Saleh said, reflecting the Druze view of the rebel groups on the other side of the border with which Israel has forged a quiet, tactical alliance.
For Israel’s government and military, the attack highlighted the chaotic fallout of the unrest roiling the country’s Arab Druze minority as Syrian civil war moves closer to the villages of the pro-regime Syrian Druze on the other side of the border.
While the IDF has pledged to protect Druze fleeing to Israel from Syria, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for calm and said Israel would not “let anyone take the law into their own hands and prevent the army from carrying out its mission.”
In recent weeks, fear that ISIS and Al Qaeda rebels will overrun Druze villages in Syria allied with Assad has spurred thousands of Israeli Druze to take to the streets to hold solidarity demonstrations. Druze leaders in Israel have lobbied Israeli leaders to ensure there is no massacre of their coreligionists across the border even though they support Assad.
“We feel an obligation to support each other. Political opinions are separate from blood connection,’’ said Ziyad Dabour, a Druze businessman who is former officer in the Israeli army. “Everyone can be on a different side, but when there is an existential threat, we unite.”
Druze boast of a “blood alliance” with the state of Israel from decades of service in Israel’s security forces and count hundreds of fallen soldiers. That is being put to the test as Druze leaders say they expect the Israeli government to honor their alliance and ensure kin in Syria are safe. Analysts say the integration of the Druze in the Israeli has peaked in recent years.
“The test is from both sides. It forces the Druze to think what is the commitment of the state toward them,’’ said Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University who focuses on the military. “In Israel society, the military is a card for legitimacy.”
On the street in Druze villages there is frustration that Israel has been giving medical aid to the same Syrian rebels who have their kin surrounded.
Despite the frustration with Israel, Druze leaders both in Israel and in the Golan have condemned the vigilante violence against the Israeli military.
The Syrian civil war has weakened the decades-old ties of the Druze in the Golan Heights to the Assad regime, and Druze in the Golan are still only beginning to grapple with the shift and what it means for their identity.
“Golan people have realized that only in the state of Israel is there security and rule of law,’’ said Dolan Abu Salh, the head of the Majdal Shams local council. “They understand there is a huge difference between Israel and Syria.”