Anger is boiling over in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where local Syrian Druze on Monday attacked an ambulance and killed a wounded Syrian opposition fighter seeking medical treatment from the Israeli military.
The fighter was a member of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) in Quneitra and the Golan, according to that group’s Facebook page. The RCC is a coalition of different armed factions in Syria, many of which are hardline Islamist groups.
The attack came just days after thousands of Druze citizens of Israel rallied in Beit Jann, a village in the Galilee region of the country’s north, in support of Syrian Druze as the group is increasingly targeted for sectarian violence by armed Islamist groups in Syria.
The Druze, an offshoot sect of Shia Islam, are spread across the map of the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. In the Golan Heights, more than 20,000 Syrian Druze have lived under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war. Elsewhere, an estimated 800,000 Druze live in Syria and another 110,000 in Israel.
The ambulance attack highlights growing tensions in the Golan Heights, where locals are angered by Israel providing medical treatment to opposition fighters who may be from groups that have recently attacked Druze communities in Syria.
In June 2014, Israeli military spokesperson Peter Lerner announced that Israel was providing medical treatment to wounded opposition fighters in the Golan Heights. “We give medical aid to people who are in dire need,” he told Foreign Policy. “We don’t do any vetting or check where they are from, or which group they are fighting for, or whether they are civilians.”
On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon again admitted that Israel has been providing “humanitarian assistance” to Syrian rebel groups, according to the Times of Israel.
Though many Druze communities in Israel have urged that country to intervene on behalf of their brethren in Syria, Druze living in the 70% of the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation largely reject Israeli support. Speaking to Syria Deeply, Golan residents said locals are split down the middle towards the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with some remaining loyal to Assad and others supporting the four-year uprising.
Yet Yasser Khanger, a Majdal Shams-based poet and activist, says that they united in their opposition to Israel’s occupation of the territory and potential involvement in the Syrian war. Many locals accuse Israel of “trying to exploit” the ongoing civil war in order to strengthen its grip on the Golan, he explains.
“We see that Israel is using Syrian suffering to promote the idea that it is a humane country,” Khanger told Syria Deeply. “In the Golan, we all oppose any alliance with Israel under any conditions. Israel cannot be concerned with the well-being of Syrian Druze while it occupies [part of that group] and supports the groups that slaughter Druze.”
On June 10, dozens of Syrian Druze were killed by fighters from the Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of al-Qaida, in the Idlib Province of the country’s northwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at the time. Just days later, Nusra Front leaders announced that the fighters had violated orders by killing the Druze and would be punished in an Islamic court.
In response, Israel is mulling the creation of a “safe zone” on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights in order to aid displaced Druze, according to Israeli media reports. Khanger rejects the assertion that Israel’s interests in Syrian Druze are humanitarian.
“Israel is trying to play a sectarian game,” the activist, who supports the Syrian uprising, commented. “We didn’t revolt against Assad’s oppression in order to legitimize the [Israeli] occupation. Israel and the [Syrian] regime are similar to us when it comes to crimes and murder. ”
Aamer Ibrahim, a Majdal Shams-activist and cofounder of Uploading Conscription, a group that campaigns against Israeli settlements and economic projects in the region, notes that now is the “hardest period” endured by Syrians since the war broke out.
Yet, despite the scenes of horror and bloodshed, he says most Golan Druze reject the prospect of Israeli intervention in Syria. “Israel doesn’t have pure intentions in the Middle East in general, let alone for the Druze in Syria,” Ibrahim said. “Druze in the Galilee [region of Israel] and the Golan simply want Israel to stop assisting fighters from Nusra, because [that group] poses a direct threat to Syrian Druze.”
Ibrahim argues that Israel is attempting to build its economic presence in the Golan Heights as the world’s focus is fixed on the bloodshed in Syria. “The [Israeli] occupation authorities are working overtime to normalize the occupation of the Golan in the world’s eyes,” he explained, “while they expand settlements and Israeli development projects.”
Though Israel claimed to have annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, the international community does not recognize that move and considers the territory occupied in contravention of international law. Like in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the Syrian territory are also considered illegal under international law.
In the summer of 2014, Israel announced that it will invest more than $5.5 million to “encourage local tourism” in Jewish-only settlements in Golan, as reported by the Arabic-language Arab48 website at the time.
Also in June 2014, the Majdal Shams-based human rights group al-Marsad reported that Israel had invested more than $108 million in a plan to develop more than 30,000 dunams (7,400 acres) of the Golan’s agricultural land. “Given the historical and political context of this region, this proposed agricultural expansion will only benefit the Jewish settlers in the occupied Golan and further marginalize and economically disadvantage the indigenous Syrians in this region,” the group said in a press release.
More recently, a U.S.-Israeli firm with links advised by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney recently began exploratory oil drilling in the Golan.
Local fears that Israel is using the chaos in Syria to tighten its grip on the Golan seem to be supported by comments made by Israeli politicians. Naftali Bennett, an Israeli parliamentarian from the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party, recently called on the world to recognize the Golan as Israeli territory.
An estimated 20,000 Jewish Israelis live in settlements in the Golan, but Bennett called on the government to increase that number to upwards of 100,000 settlers in the next five years. “Who do they want us to give the Golan to? To Assad? Today, it’s clear that if we listened to the world, we would give up the Golan, and ISIS would be swimming in the Sea of Galilee,” he said.
While opposition to Israeli intervention is firm, Ibrahim says that choosing a side in the Syrian war has become increasingly difficult for Golan residents. “There is no doubt that less people support the revolution that started in 2011,” he explained. “This is not just true in the Golan, but also in Syria and the Middle East in general.”
“I personally notice that people have adopted a more religious perspective now – though not necessarily sectarian. Druze flags have become common and support for Syrian Druze has become the key concern,” Ibrahim said. “This is very natural, because the bloodshed on Syrian streets is much closer to the lives of Syrian Druze now.”