Scores of Druse students who had been studying in Damascus returned to the Israeli side of the Golan Heights through the Kuneitra Crossing on Tuesday. This follows weeks of back-channel lobbying and what family members say has been a harrowing wait to see their children come home safely.
The mass arrival of 86 students in one day took many Golan Druse families by surprise, because they had not been informed that this would be the day the students – all of whom were attending university in the Syrian capital – would be allowed to cross the border.
Permission for the students to return to Israel had been approved almost two weeks ago, officials close to the situation said. But the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, reeling from the mounting gains of rebels fighting to unseat the long-standing Alawite regime, stalled for time amid suspicions that releasing the Israeli Druse might help the rebels’ cause.
“The Syrians, because of their own fears and suspicions, wouldn’t let the students go. It took a long time, not because of us, but because of them,” Ayoub Kara, deputy minister for Development of the Negev and Galilee, told The Jerusalem Post.
Kara, a leading Druse politician, was intimately involved in the negotiations with Damascus to win the safe passage of the students.
“We are in a very sensitive situation, and we pressed for this with all our might. We spoke to a lot of ambassadors, to the Red Cross, to the UN, because it was time for the students to come home and the families wanted them back,” he said.
One of the families involved in a quiet campaign to bring their boys and girls home was that of Majdal Shams resident Haill Safadi, a prominent member of the local Druse community.
Safadi’s younger brother was studying in the Syrian capital and was able to get out a few weeks ago, and he told the family that conditions there were far more perilous for the students than they were able to let on when their families contacted them.
“Nearly every family here has a child studying in Damascus, and we couldn’t get a clear picture of how bad things really were,” said Safadi. “You can’t talk freely about the situation, neither in a phone call or an email. So the students were saying the situation is fine – and clearly, it wasn’t fine at all. The parents were worried sick. If the student gives a bad answer, even casually, it will create problems for him.”
The release of the students was expedited, Safadi said, by the fact that the university was shut and exams were canceled due to the security situation. Many of the students who are close to finishing their degrees may now find themselves stuck, hoping against hope that the credits can be applied elsewhere.
“I don’t think anyone will be going back for the fall semester, and some are leaving very much in the middle of their studies. But giving up on five years of studying is better than a bullet in the head, which is what’s likely to happen to those who stay,” he said.
Druse across the region live in a precarious situation, generally choosing to support the government of the country in which they find themselves. In Israel, most Druse men serve in the army – with the exception of those in the Golan.
Israel gained the heights in the Six Day War in 1967 and annexed it by a Knesset vote in 1981. Citizenship was offered to the residents but few accepted, maintaining that they would eventually be returned to Syrian sovereignty.
Since the eruption of the armed resistance to Assad’s rule – which started as a slow boil last year as part of the Arab Spring in the then little-known city of Dara’a, and only took hold earlier this year in major cities like Homs and now Aleppo and Damascus – many Druse have tried to uphold the public image of remaining outside the political fray. But in reality, some Druse have remained pro-Assad stalwarts while others empathize with the Free Syrian Army trying to overthrow the regime.
Meanwhile, sources in the Druse community say the Syrian government has been playing the different religious groups against each other.
Given that the Druse religion is a 1,000-year-old offshoot of the Ismaili school of Shi’ite Islam, some consider them natural allies of other Shi’ites – including the Assad family, who are Alawites, another branch of Shi’ism.
Refugees from Syria have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. On Monday night alone, more than 1,300 Syrians fled to Turkey, the Associated Press reported, citing a Turkish official. Due to the crisis, there are already 126,441 Syrian refugees in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, according to the UNHCR.
It is as yet unclear whether Israel will allow refugees from Syria inside its borders.
IDF troops shot a Syrian civilian in the knee on August 4 as he attempted to cross the border by cutting the wire fence. Kara says the attempt to infiltrate was an ill-planned one, because troops could not know if it was “a crazy man or a terrorist.” But in the weeks to come, Kara said, he would work to bring other people across the border on humanitarian grounds.
“It’s very important to us and we’re doing what we can,” he added. “Maybe we can’t totally open the border, but perhaps we could give refugees a safe haven in the UN-controlled area between Israel and Syria.