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Druze Want Israeli Protection From Syrian Islamists


FILE - A member of the Druze community holds a Druze flag as he speaks to an Israeli soldier near the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near Majdal Shams, June 18, 2015.

FILE - A member of the Druze community holds a Druze flag as he speaks to an Israeli soldier near the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near Majdal Shams, June 18, 2015.

After recent attacks from Islamist militant rebels, Syria’s Druze community is looking to clan leaders in nearby Israel for protection from attacks in Syria’s civil war.

“Druze in Israel are concerned about what’s happening to their brothers in Syria,” said Sheikh Mouafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel.

The Druze, who are an ancient religious sect with ties to Shi’ite Islam, were split between Israel and Syria following a 1967 war when Israel gained the Golan Heights from Syria.

As Syria’s five-year war has unfolded, Israeli Druze have watched as their community in Syria has come under increasing threat, especially from Islamist militants affiliated with the Fateh al-Sham Front, a rebel group battling Syrian troops. The group was formerly known as al-Nusra Front, which was al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.

Druze solidarity

Scattered across Syria, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, Druze have nonetheless maintained a strong sense of solidarity. As a religious minority, they have often been persecuted for their faith. Druze make up nearly 2 percent of Israel’s 8 million people.

The Israeli Druze leader Tarif told Israel’s public radio that he had demanded the Israeli military intervene on behalf of “the Druze of Syria.” He was referring the Druze town of Khader, located on the border between Syria and Israel, that has been under siege by rebels recently.

But Israel has been careful not to become embroiled in Syria’s civil war, and analysts say that will most likely continue despite pressure from Druze leaders.

“I doubt the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] would overtly intervene in Syria unless there was a direct danger to Israeli civilians or interests,” said Roei Eisenberg, an Israeli journalist who closely follows Israeli military affairs.

Israel has occasionally attacked targets belonging to the Syrian government and the Lebanese Hezbollah group fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime. Hezbollah is a self-professed enemy of Israel and calls for the extinction of the Jewish state.

A picture taken from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising from the Syrian village of Jubata al-Khashab, Sept. 10, 2016. Israeli aircraft struck Syrian army positions Sept. 10 after fire from war-torn Syria hit the Israeli-held zone of the Golan Heights earlier in the day, the Israeli military said.

A picture taken from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising from the Syrian village of Jubata al-Khashab, Sept. 10, 2016. Israeli aircraft struck Syrian army positions Sept. 10 after fire from war-torn Syria hit the Israeli-held zone of the Golan Heights earlier in the day, the Israeli military said.

An Israeli aircraft attacked a Syrian military position this week. The Israeli government said it was responding to a missile that was launched from the Syrian side and landed in Israel.

Help for Islamist rebels

But Druze see Israel’s occasional aerial assaults as aiding Islamist rebels in Syria.

“Al-Nusra fighters enter areas after the [Israeli] army bombs to clear the way for them,” Akram Hasson, a Druze member of the Israeli parliament, wrote in a Facebook post.

He called on Knesset members to have an emergency session on what he called “a massacre ... against people of Khader.”

Israel's military leaders have dismissed the allegations.

“What the Israeli military and air force are doing is to prevent the war spillover in Israel,” Avigdor Liebermann, Israel’s defense minister, said.

The government also says it has aided wounded Syrian civilians living in border areas, allowing them treatment in Israeli hospitals.

Druze in Israel are concerned that any gains for Muslim Sunnis in Syria would result in more persecution for the Druze minority in the country.

“Like any other minority group, Druze have grown worried about what’s going in Syria,” said Fares El Schoufi, a Druze political activist from Syria. “They are vulnerable and afraid of the growing extremism in Syria and elsewhere.”

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