Israeli Druze angered by their country’s medical assistance to Syrian rebels
By DANIELLA CHESLOW | McClatchy Foreign Staff (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 24, 2015
MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights (Tribune News Service) — Mira Amer, 50, was sleeping Tuesday before dawn in the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights when police raided her home and arrested her son on suspicion of lynching a wounded Syrian who was on his way to an Israeli hospital.
Amer said her son, a 32-year-old musician, is not guilty — but that in any case the killing Monday was not a murder. Druze in Israel are outraged that Israel may be giving medical care to Islamic militants fighting in Syria who have been accused of killing Druze in that country’s brutal conflict. Over the past two years, Israel has treated more than 1,600 wounded Syrian rebels in its hospitals.
“We don’t want the government to bring those terrorists here,” Amer said.
Amer — whose name has been changed because of an Israeli gag order on the case — has relatives in the Druze town of Hader on the Syrian side of the border, a town so close she can see it across the border. Islamist rebels from al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, had surrounded Hader last week, just days after members of the movement had slaughtered 20 Druze in the Syrian province of Idlib.
“We all have relatives in Hader and they are getting hurt,” Amer said.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said residents of Majdal Shams attacked an Israeli military ambulance that was carrying two Syrian patients down the winding roads of this hillside community about 11 p.m.
The ambulance continued for a few miles but was then stopped by assailants who shattered its windows and dragged out the two men inside. One man was battered to death; the other escaped to an Israeli hospital along with the two soldiers who had escorted the patients.
The incident was the second Druze attack on an ambulance Monday. The first occurred before dawn, when a group of men attempted to stop a military ambulance driving near Hurfeish, a Druze town on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The ambulance drove off under a hail of stones.
The two attacks threatened to suck Israel into a regional conflagration its leaders have studiously avoided. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the violence and swore to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“We are a country of law and are not a part of the anarchy that is spreading around us,” Netanyahu said.
Nine suspects were arrested early Tuesday in connection to the confrontations.
The Druze sect is a 10th-century offshoot of Shiite Islam whose members live in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. In each nation, the Druze swear allegiance to the government and serve in its army. Nearly all of the men among the 110,000 Druze citizens of Israel do military service.
An additional 20,000 Druze live in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967; Druze in the Golan largely maintain Syrian citizenship in protest of Israeli rule and feel an umbilical connection to those who remain on the other side.
The crumbling of President Bashar Assad’s government has left the Druze in Syria vulnerable to attacks from Islamists, who see Druze as both heretics and enemy soldiers.
That has galvanized the Druze inside Israel.
In Majdal Shams, residents poured into the streets last week flying the rainbow Druze flag and the red, white and green standard of Syria, along with banners bearing Assad’s face. Druze citizens of Israel raised $2.6 million, which they hoped would fund weapons for their Syrian counterparts. Ayoob Kara, a Druze legislator with Netanyahu’s Likud party, visited Jordan and Turkey to negotiate safe passage for Druze in Syria and made a personal appeal to the Israeli premier to help his people.
“The Druze in Israel who fought for Israel expect their state to help their brothers,” Kara told McClatchy.
Israel has sworn it will not allow a Druze genocide, but it has provided few specifics on how it will help.
Druze leaders in Israel were quick to condemn the attacks on the ambulances. Sheikh Muafak Tarif, the spiritual head of the Druze in Israel, said Tuesday, “This is not our way, and we’re in pain over what happened.”
In Hurfeish, the Druze Israeli town where the first ambulance attack occurred, former council head Rekad Kheredin, a retired lieutenant colonel from Israel’s army, said the violence threatened the trust Israeli Druze have cultivated over decades of loyal military service. Kheredin served as a commander, then a reserve soldier, for 24 years.
“As citizens of Israel, we care about the law and our state not less than our brothers in Syria,” Kheredin said. “I don’t want to lose the Israeli and Jewish street.”
For Majdal Shams attorney Kifah Johary, 31, the killing of the Syrian patient was more ambiguous. Johary lives 100 yards from the Syrian border; over the past three years he has grown accustomed to sleeping and eating to the sounds of distant thudding from Syria’s civil war. Monday’s attack brought the war home.
Johary was drinking coffee and smoking a waterpipe with friends when he saw photos of the assault on Facebook. He dashed out to the crime scene, where he saw a bloodied man in his underwear lying on the asphalt.
“We are not the Nusra Front. We don’t kill people just like that, and this act is completely different from the Druze people,” Johary said. “But on the other hand, our people are under existential threat. And we have a sense of pride, that maybe this man killed our brothers.”
Johary will represent several suspects in the attack.
Police spokesman Rosenfeld said the police and the army are tightening security around the military ambulances. On Wednesday, military jeeps and tanks rumbled through the main thoroughfare of Majdal Shams.
Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Israel treats all Syrian patients because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Gil Maor, a spokesman for Ziv Medical Center in Tiberias, said his hospital had treated about 500 of the Syrian patients and estimated that half the patients were males ages 18 to 40. The others were women, children and the elderly.
“Whoever enters the gate of the hospital gets treated,” he said. “The only questions we ask is how they were injured, whether it was a gunshot or an explosion.”
Yoram Schweitzer, a counterterrorism expert at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel treats Syrian patients both as a humanitarian gesture to civilians caught in the crossfire and as a way to forge connections that may prove useful should Syria disintegrate.
Schweitzer said Israel would likely provide only limited, covert, humanitarian aid to Syria’s Druze. “I don’t think Israel has a strategy besides follow the news and do nothing,” Schweitzer said. “Israel will not be dragged into this.”
(Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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Residents of the Druze Israeli village of Hurfeish maintain a shrine to the first Druze paratrooper in Israel, part of the strong tradition of Druze service in the Israeli military. Druze in Israel have been anxiously watching attacks on Druze in Syria, and they say Israel must protect Syria's Druze as a return gesture for years of loyal service. Police arrested residents of Hurfeish and the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams on Tuesday, in connection to a fatal pair of attacks on two ambulances carrying Syrian patients to Israeli hopsitals. The Druze say Israel should not provide medical care to people who may be members of the Nusra Front that is murdering Syrian Druze.
DANIELLA CHESLOW/MCCLATCHY DC/TNS