Last month, the Syrian town of Hadar fell to opposition rebels; it was the last of the Druze towns along the Golan Heights ceasefire line still in government hands. Fears have grown for the safety of Hadar’s residents, predominantly pro-regime, as the fighters who besieged the town reportedly include militants from Jabhat Al-Nusra; the group massacred 20 Druze in the Idlib province in early June.
Syrian Druze just across the border in the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights share this concern. They are so close to Hadar that they can watch its destruction through binoculars. Many have taken to the streets to call on Israel and the international community to protect their Druze brethren. Their protests have not only drawn attention to their plight, but also the curious way that Israel is dealing with the situation just across the border.
There are four Syrian Druze villages remaining in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel occupied the area in 1967, before formally annexing it in 1981 in a move not recognised by the international community and not accepted by the local population. The majority refuse Israeli passports and identify themselves as Syrian.
At the start of the Syrian civil war, the country’s Druze refused to take an active stance against the government and thousands have since died fighting in the Syrian army. In the occupied Golan, divisions have crept into the Syrian Druze communities between Assad supporters and his opponents. Yet, support for Assad remains strong within the community, and a few Golan Druze have even appeared beyond the border fence, fighting on the regime’s side.
This position differs from that of Israel, which has been supporting the Syrian rebels tactically for some time. Since 2012, quarterly reports issued by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) – stationed on the ceasefire line separating the Syrian Golan from the Israeli-occupied Golan – have revealed frequent interactions between the Israeli army and fighters from armed groups in Syria. They have noted the movement of fighters – both wounded and healthy – as well as cargo and other equipment across the border, through liaison with the Israeli army.
The major concern of Syrian Druze in the occupied Golan is that Al-Nusra fighters – the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda that the US has targeted with airstrikes – have been among those receiving Israeli aid. Tensions culminated in residents from the Syrian Druze village of Majdal Shams ambushing an Israeli ambulance carrying two rebel fighters on 22 June. A crowd gathered demanding to know if the men in the ambulance were Al-Nusra fighters, before beating one to death and leaving the other seriously injured.
Despite Al-Nusra being a branch of a group which Israel would certainly not describe as an ally, such allegations are well founded. In August 2014, Al-Nusra captured Quneitra, a key crossing point between Syrian-controlled territory and the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights, which provided them with direct contact with the Israelis.
A Wall Street Journal article published in March of this year quoted an Israeli military official noting that the army was aware that most of the rebels in the area around the border fence were from Al-Nusra and that Israel treats wounded Syrians without question or a screening process to determine who belongs to which group. Until his arrest in February Sidqi Maqt, a Druze from Majdal Shams, spent three years documenting meetings between Israeli army personnel and Syrian opposition fighters, including Al-Nusra.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon acknowledged on Monday that Israel has been providing Syria rebels with aid, without mentioning Al-Nusra. Israeli officials have stuck to the line that they don’t interfere in the Syrian conflict and have no contact with the rebels except to provide humanitarian assistance to wounded Syrians. Briefing reporters on Monday, Ya’alon said that, from the outset, Israel knew that there were rebels among those it was helping and “placed two conditions on this aid – that terrorist groups not approach the fence, and that the Druze not be touched.”
The question of whether this support extends further remains unanswered. Bashar Al-Assad believes it does. In an interview with Foreign Affairs in January, he said: “Some in Syria joke: ‘How can you say that Al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force’.”
Israel has certainly used military means to play a hand in who controls the region along its borders. In January, for example, an Israeli helicopter attacked and killed a senior member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and at least six members of Hezbollah, including Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of slain Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyeh, in Quneitra.
The media reported that on 23 September last year, Israel downed a MiG-21 Syrian military aircraft over the occupied Golan Heights during the intensification of fighting between rebels led by Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Syrian army. An article in Al-Monitor by writer Khaled Atallah mentions this as evidence of Israel coordinating attacks in Syria with Al-Nusra. A general from the Syrian army told Atallah that during the battle, “Israel supported gunmen by providing them with cover under the pretext of ‘shooting back’, hindering any attempts by the Syrian air force to intervene.”
Since seizing the border crossing in August, Al-Nusra Front has not created any problems for Israel. On the other hand, the Damascus regime, which controlled the area previously, is propped up by two of Israel’s biggest enemies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran. Ya’alon has stated repeatedly his belief that Iran is seeking to open a new front against Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights. Hezbollah has already targeted Israeli troops in the area with several small-scale roadside bomb and rocket attacks.
Even if assistance to Al-Nusra manages, at least temporarily, to secure a security belt for Israel in the Golan region, it seems to be fuelling unrest domestically and pits Tel Aviv against the likes of its main ally, the United States.
The attack on the ambulance in Majdal Shams is no doubt being taken seriously in Tel Aviv; it happened within territory under Israeli control, it involved citizens attacking a military ambulance and overpowering IDF soldiers, and a wounded person being treated by the army was murdered. But Israel knows that it must respond cautiously in order to prevent further spillover. It does not want to alienate the large Druze population in Israel proper where, unlike the Syrian Druze in the occupied Golan, most are Israeli citizens and include many serving Israeli soldiers and veterans. The conditions applied to aid for opposition fighters mentioned by Ya’alon; Israeli government promises to protect the Druze; and the recent IDF tour of the Golan for Druze leaders, are attempts to reassure the Druze population. But will they be enough?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.