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Syrian conflict divides Druze community

After Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria, a religious minority living there continued to retain close ties with Syria. But now young Druze are going against the traditional loyalties of their community.

A serene view of mountaintops and villages in the distance is a tourist attraction in the Golan Heights in Israel's northern-most part. Families lunch at this spot overlooking the UN monitored plot of no man's land between the Israeli border and Syria.

Boys throw rocks in the direction of Israel's long-time foe. Yet this playful setting takes a dark turn when shelling and mortars dropping just over the mountaintops in Syria can be heard at nights, a chilling reminder for the residents of the Golan of the close proximity of Syria's bloody civil war.

Bitter over annexation of Golan

Many of the residents of the Golan are Druze, a minority religious group that is an offshoot of Islam. They live among the five Druze villages Israel captured and annexed after winning the six-day 1967 war against neighboring Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Bitter animosity over Israel's annexation of the Golan territories persists among the Druze, who refer to the land as "occupied."

Israeli soldiers patrol along the Israeli-Syrian border next to the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on May 20, 2011

Majdal Shams is located in Israeli-controlled territory

Traditionally, the Druze were loyal to the Syrian regime and reluctant to live under Israeli control. They come from the same Alawite sect as the embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. But as residents in Majdal Shams, the largest Druze village in the Golan Hights, became aware of the murders being carried out by forces loyal to Assad on the other side of the border, opinion began to split.

Outraged by atrocities

Whereas the elder members of the community tended to remain loyal to Assad, the younger generation reacted with outrage to the atrocities being committed in his name. Shefaa Abu Jabal is one of them. The 26-year-old lawyer, was the first Druze woman ever to graduate from an Israeli university, and is part of a group of Druze Israeli activists who are openly aligning themselves with anti-regime activists in Syria.

Their support, she says, has been warmly welcomed by their Syrian counterparts. "When they see our pictures in demonstrations they appreciate it very much," she says. She and the other activists demonstrate every Friday, and "we post things on Facebook and Twitter, we help them upload videos; we spread the word."

With easy Internet access available almost everywhere in Israel, the activists say they make use of the possibilities they have to support their counterparts in Syria. For her and many of her fellow Druze activists, Shefaa says "it was the first time that we could feel the Syrian person inside" themselves. But she has also suffered harsh consequences due to her activism.

Every year, on February 14, the anniversary of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War, many Druze of the Golan hold a rally in Israel calling for a return of the territory to Syria. In Majdal Shams, this event became the catalyst for a violent community backlash against Shefaa and her friends. "They didn't chant the usual chanting like 'we are Syrians we want to go back to Syria.' It was 'we love Bashar, we are the men of Bashar.' It was more a pro-Assad demonstration."

Then the crowd went Shefaa's house. "They started to chant against us. They see my family and uncles as traitors who joined this conspiracy against Syria, and ended up next to our houses spitting on us and cursing us."

'Druze should take a stance'

Despite the annual demonstrations, the Druze generally pride themselves on being a neutral political force in the host countries in which they reside. In Majdal Shams most residents are reluctant to comment on the situation in Syria.

Israeli soldiers tour an old abandoned army post from the 1967 war at Mt. Bental in the Golan Heights

Younger Druze cannot remember a time when Syria controlled the Golan Heights

But town's mayor, 31-year-old Dolann Abu Salach, has a different take. He thinks people should be more outspoken against Assad.

"We don't support the fact that [Druze] are neutral," he says. "We do think they are supposed to oppose the dictatorship." After the Assad regime has fallen, he adds, the Druze will be asked where they stood, and "so we think they should take a stance."

Salach's position on Syria puts him at odds with a large proportion of his community and could cost him his political popularity. Nevertheless, he believes the atrocities on the other side of the border are slowly causing opinion in Majdal Shams to shift. If events continue on their current course, the voices of young professionals such as Salach and Shefaa may soon be joined by those of older Druze speaking out against the Assad regime.

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