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Middle East

Israel makes arrests in politically charged Golan murder

Israel has a problem in the Golan Heights. Druze villagers killed an injured man from Syria who Israeli doctors wanted to treat in exchange for contacts in the country. Daniella Cheslow reports from Majdal Shams.

After police arrested five residents of the Druze village of Majdal Shams on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights for murder, mayor Dolan Abu Saleh has a difficult task: convince his people they committed a crime.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that at about 11 p.m. Monday, residents of Majdal Shams surrounded a military ambulance driving from the Syrian border through the village and down to a hospital in Israel. The locals trailed the ambulance as it drove out of the village, then stopped it, shattered the windows and dragged out and bludgeoned two injured Syrians. One died; the other was wounded along with two Israeli soldiers who were escorting the patients.

"It was a murder in every sense of the word. It was a mob attack on helpless people," Abu Saleh said.

Druze community is separated

Israel Majdal Shams Golanhöhen Dolan Abu Saleh Drusen

'It was murder in every sense of the word,' says Mayor Abu Saleh

Not so, say some among the 11,000 residents of this pastoral village, surrounded by cherry, apple and apricot orchards. Druze in Israel and the Golan number about 130,000, and are part of a tiny, secretive sect whose members live in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Those in Israel hold Israeli citizenship and serve in the Israeli army. Most of the 20,000 Druze of the Golan Heights maintain their Syrian citizenship as a protest against Israel's conquest of the territory in 1967. All the Druze, in Israel and the Golan, feel a strong connection to their relatives in Syria and carefully follow the news.

On June 10, Islamic fighters with the Nusra Front slaughtered 20 Druze in the Syrian province of Idlib. Nusra Front fighters have also surrounded the Druze village of Hader, just across the border from the Golan Heights. Doctors in Israeli hospitals concede they cannot tell whether their patients are civilians, Free Syria Army rebels, or jihadists with the Nusra Front or Islamic State.

In Majdal Shams, pharmacist Aml Hamd said his wife came from Hader and still has a brother and sister in the village. She often insists on going to a lookout point, where she can see the homes of her brother and sister – and faints with worry.

"Why are we helping terrorists?" Hamd asked. "These terrorists are killing our people.”

Israel treating war victims from Syria

The mob victim was one of more than 1,600 Syrians Israel has treated in its hospitals in the last two years. Army spokesman Lt.-Col. Peter Lerner said Israel treats Syrians as a humanitarian gesture to people in border communities who have few other medical options. Counterterrorism expert Yoram Schweitzer said this treatment also gives Israel valuable contacts across Syrian society.

Golanhöhen Majdal Shams

Druze families in Israel have close ties to their relatives in Syria and Lebanon

Providing medical assistance is an exception to Israel's policy of keeping a careful distance from the four-year-old civil war ravaging its northern neighbor. The killing of the Syrian man threatened to sweep Israel into the fighting. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Wednesday, "We understand the feelings of Israeli Druze and their worry for the faith of their brothers in Syria. We will not allow to be dragged into a war that is not our own."

The fatal attack on Monday night was the second that day; before dawn, a crowd tried to stop a military ambulance traveling outside the Druze village of Hurfeish, on the Israel-Lebanon border. The ambulance driver managed to peel away under a barrage of stones.

The two incidents triggered soul searching among Druze in Israel. Top religious leader Sheikh Mowafk Tarif,said Tuesday, "this is not our way, and we're in pain over what happened."

Druze want help from Israel

Prior to the ambulance assaults, Druze in Israel petitioned the government to help their brethren in Syria. Druze legislator Ayoob Kara, of the ruling Likud party, invoked the Druze service in Israel's military as a lobbying point with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel Majdal Shams Golanhöhen Israelischer Panzer

Israeli tanks are a common sight on the Golan Heights.

"We need to prevent the next massacre," he said. "The Druze in Israel, who fought for Israel, expect their state to help their brothers."

Israeli leaders have pledged to prevent a genocide of the Druze and have hinted they would take in refugees from Syria. So far, Israel has not intervened militarily.

Police are treating Monday's ambulance attack as a murder. Nine suspects were arrested Tuesday; five were from Majdal Shams and four, from Hurfeish. Army spokesman Lerner said the military and police were discussing how to better secure ambulances traveling through Druze areas. He insisted Israel would continue to treat Syrians.

"It's on the border and people need help," Lerner said. "We can't really turn them around."

Mayor Abu Saleh said he spent Tuesday walking the parks and streets of Majdal Shams, speaking to young people about why targeting injured Syrians is wrong. He said he worried an attack on Syrians inside Israel might boomerang back on the Syrian Druze community.

"We have our relatives on the other side, and we live in a state that gives us security," Abu Saleh said. "I told [the young people] to calm things down. They had a lot of ‘buts'."

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