"If I was in a position in the government and I felt that my situation was not
so strong, for me there’s no problem killing 1,000 people if they are breaking
windows, burning fires in the street, making problems. For me there is no
problem.’ Hamad Awidat doesn’t mince words, not about the recent turmoil in
Syria and not about what he sees as the persecution of Golan Heights Druse at
the hands of their “Israeli occupiers.”
Like many in Majdal Shams, one of
four Druse villages on the Golan Heights whose residents identify as Syrians,
Awidat, 27, expressed steadfast support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. In a
common refrain heard in the village Tuesday, presaging precisely what Assad
would say in his address to parliament on Wednesday, Awidat also voiced
suspicion that the violent protests that have left dozens of protesters dead at
the hands of government forces are being orchestrated by outside elements
hostile to the Syrian people.
“I think it’s not something that the
Syrians did, some group or some team, I don’t know who is behind it. There are
many people in the world who are interested in Syria. Some people are saying it
could be America, some people are saying Israel or the neighbors of Syria like
Saudi Arabia, or others who don’t have the same ideas as Syria,” Awidat
“Everyone is waiting in the world for Bashar Assad to fall because
his is the first country always saying ‘I am against America, I am with
Hezbollah and Iran.’” When pressed, Awidat didn’t harbor any illusions that the
Assad regime is a beacon of democracy, but said that for him freedom is tied to
his nationality and the feeling that his nationality is represented by the
country he lives in. As he sees it, if he had Syrian citizenship and lived in
Syria even under a dictatorship, he would feel freer than living in a democratic
Israel as a Syrian without Israeli citizenship or a Syrian passport.
Awidat, who studied for his bachelor’s degree at the University of Damascus and
received an MA from Tel Aviv University, the issue of democracy seems a distant
second to the issue of being part of the nationstate of his people and having
freedom of movement.
He described Majdal Shams and the other Druse
villages of the Golan Heights as being basically in the same situation as
Palestinian villages in the West Bank.
“You don’t need a wall to make
somebody a prisoner. There, in the West Bank, they built them a
wall. Here, they put down a border and minefields. We can’t grow or
move,” he said, pointing at a densely packed neighborhood running up against the
border with Syria, where a multistory apartment building is under construction
to deal with an expanding family’s housing needs.
From the vantage point
on top of a family tomb in the Majdal Shams cemetery, the breathtaking natural
beauty of the views mixes with the bizarre, almost schizophrenic political
layout of the village. Above the cemetery is an IDF outpost, while in the
valleys below neighborhoods abut the border fence only a football field’s
distance from the nearest Syrian house.
A nearby overlook stands only a
few hundred meters from the platform on the Syrian side, where families still
gather throughout the week to shout messages to relatives and loved ones on the
A casual observer without binoculars can easily make out
Syrian kids chasing each other across the hilltop platform beneath two large
Syrian flags. To top it off, the fences, cramped housing and steep hillsides are
interspersed with minefields, some of which run directly against the backyards
of villagers’ houses.
Awidat manages the village’s “Museum of the
Occupied Syrian Golan Heights,” opened last year to chronicle the history of the
Druse in the Golan and to highlight what they see as their struggle against
their Israeli occupiers. According to Channel 10, the museum receives funding
from Syria, a claim that Awidat denied.
The museum is replete with
photographs and relics of Druse popular struggles against the Israeli annexation
of the Golan Heights and the area’s onetime French and Turkish rulers. It also
includes a mock-up of a rustic Druse home complete with original tools and
weapons, as well as Syrian flags and mementos from Druse soldiers who fought in
Syria’s wars against Israel. As is to be expected, a framed photo of Bashar
Assad hangs on the wall in the middle of the museum.
Awidat said the
museum is largely meant to educate villagers, especially youngsters, about the
history of the village and the Golan Druse, but also to be a place of learning
for outside visitors.
With a population of around 10,000, Majdal Shams is
the largest Druse village on the Golan Heights – the others are Bukata, Mas’ada
and Ein Kuniya. The Druse refused to take Israeli citizenship after the Golan
Heights was annexed in 1981. As a result, nearly all of them are still
considered Syrian citizens.
Only a few are able to travel back and forth,
mainly religious leaders and older residents, as well as students who travel
each year to Syria to study in its universities.
WHILE THE Golan Druse
may feel culturally and ethnically Syrian, listening to the nearly universal
pro- Assad sentiments in Majdal Shams and elsewhere calls for a healthy dose of
With families still residing in Syria, they are typically
reluctant to speak against Assad‘s regime. Also, they seem to want to play their
cards right in case their villages are some day once again under Syrian control,
while remaining peaceful, if to a certain extent politically hostile, to Israel,
which they call home.
Regardless of the sidewalk realpolitik, on the
outside there were few nuances in the expressions of sympathy and appreciation
for Assad. At Café Marya, Faha Ibrahim, 35, stood behind the counter expressing
her full support for Assad as a track by teen heartthrob Justin Bieber blared
over the speaker system.
“We are with him because to support him is to
support Syria and we are Syrian citizens, not Israeli citizens.
probably won’t find someone here who will say they are against
She said that Assad had been good to the Druse, and that hundreds
of people in the village have college degrees or are doctors because of the
educations they have received at Syrian universities.
She also said there
was absolutely no chance the protests would bring down Assad’s regime, and
scoffed at the possibility.
At the gallery café, three teenagers, Hosam,
Basil and Amit, expressed a bit more ambivalence about Syrian politics and
whether or not the Assad regime could fall.
Hosam Shaar, 17, said, “it
does influence us, because all of us are Syrian. What is happening there to
change the regime is a good thing, to have democracy, but I don’t know if its
good for Syria.”
Shaar said that many in the younger generation have a
different opinion than their parents because “we’re 17 and 18 years old, we’ve
never been to Syria since Israel took this part of Syria. We don’t know Assad. I
can’t really talk about Assad because I don’t know him.”
They all said
that they feel more Syrian than Israeli and have many relatives still in Syria.
At the same time, they expressed little desire to live in one country more than
the other, and said that when they finish high school they and many of their
friends will look into studying at Israeli universities over the Syrian
universities, with Basil saying he is looking to study at the Wingate Institute
They said they would not take part in a planned pro-Assad
protest on Saturday and the strongest, most cut-and-dried sentiments they
expressed were about the bloodshed in the streets of Syria and not over the
question of whether the Assad regime is in danger.
“This is forbidden;
this is human life. It’s very difficult to think about this. Also when we saw it
in Egypt, it was hard to see. Could he fall or not, we don’t know.
care about is peace and quiet and nobody getting killed; we’re not interested in
Assad or anyone else, just peace. Who can say he won’t go? Only God can say,”
Hosam said, as his friends nodded in agreement.
Still, the teenagers’
sentiments seemed to be in the minority, and the opinions of the village seemed
more typified by Akram Abu-Salah, 42.
In his butcher shop across from the
town’s landmark statue of legendary Druse hero Sultan al-Atrash, Abu-Salah
watched Syrian state TV, which was showing throngs of Assad supporters rallying
in central Damascus. Abu-Salah said Assad isn’t only good for the Druse of Syria
and the Golan Heights but “for all the people of Syria; look at the millions
“Look how many people support him. The people who are
against Assad, it could be they are from outside, from the US, Jordan, Israel,
we don’t know. Most of the people here think this came from the outside,”
Only minutes earlier, Syrian state TV announced that
Assad had sacked his cabinet, which Abu-Salah said could be part of efforts to
quell the uprising. He said that unlike Egypt, “where religion is stronger and
the people are less united than in Syria,” the regime won’t be pushed from power
and will be able to quell the uprising through doling out economic assistance
and reform packages because the struggle is not at its heart a battle for
democracy or human rights.
Abu-Salah said he had the utmost confidence in
Assad’s leadership, and added that he was certain that like the protests
currently raging in Syria, Israeli control of the Golan Heights would also
someday be a distant memory.
“Of course [the Golan] will return to Syria.
The Turks ruled here for 400 years, the French ruled for a long time. It has
been 43 years under Israel and it will end. Every occupation comes to an end