In an emotional operation with delicate diplomatic underpinnings, over 550 Druse residents of the Golan Heights crossed the border into Syria Thursday morning for a five-day trip that will include a visit to the tomb of the Prophet Habil, the Biblical Abel, southwest of Damascus.
The crossing, which was coordinated between the IDF, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Israeli and Syrian interior ministries, was the 14th crossing of its kind in as many years, and included a higher number of pilgrims than had taken part in previous visits. A large delegation of Druse religious leaders made up the bulk of those who entered Syria through the border at the Kuneitra Crossing, and additional groups of men over the age of 35 and women over the age of 70 accompanied them.
According to the ICRC, the Syrian Interior Ministry had initially refused the women permission to enter the country, however, the ICRC was eventually able to secure the proper approval for them to go ahead with the visit.
"There was an initial list of 495 male elders and religious leaders, which had been approved by the Israeli government, and which was transferred to the Syrian Interior Ministry through our office in Damascus," an ICRC spokeswoman Nadia Didsy, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
"While that list was also approved by the Syrians, we received an additional list two days ago that included 43 women and 17 more men, which the Israeli government had also approved. That list was again transferred to the Syrian authorities, who replied that it had been received with 'too short notice', and that they couldn't take the additional measures for their passage. However, in the end, we were able to secure the approval for those pilgrims as well, and everyone crossed over this morning," Didsy said.
Still, a number of young Druse women who have been denied the ability to reunite with family members in Syria because they had married Israeli citizens, held a small protest at the crossing Thursday morning to voice their disappointment.
While Didsy said she was unfamiliar with the details of those cases, she said that the ICRC preferred that more women be allowed to enter Syria, and would continue working on their behalf.
Outside of the third-party role the ICRC played between the two governments, who have no official contact with one another, the international group also financed the pilgrims' transport, which included a number of buses, to ensure their safe passage.
"As a humanitarian organization, it's important to the ICRC that there is a link between the families," Didsy added.
Likud MK Ayoub Kara, himself a member of Israel's Druse community, also worked diligently to secure the pilgrims' passage, and was on hand Thursday morning at Kuneitra to oversee the crossing.
"I was very moved to to take part in this event, and to be able to assist members of my community," Kara told the Post on Thursday. "I had the opportunity to meet an 80 year-old woman who was making the trip, who hadn't seen her family [on the Syrian side of the border] since the Six Day War. I am proud to have had had the merit of making that happen."
Kara, who said that he had assisted a wheelchair-bound woman make the crossing all the way to the entrance on the Syrian side, also said that he hoped future crossings would include even more people, and that such humanitarian operations would help bring Syria and Israel closer to peace.
"One of my goals when taking office was to begin opening the crossings once a month, if not more often," he said. "I have also worked on a project that would bring water from Syria, through a Turkish pipeline into Israel."
Speaking of the young women who were not allowed to make the trip, Kara said he would also work on their behalf.
"We will find solutions to these problems," he said.
While the annual entrance of Druse Sheikhs into Syria began in 1995, students have been permitted passage in order to attend universities in Syria on a regular basis, through the ICRC, for more than 16 years. In 2008 the ICRC facilitated the crossing of 552 students in nine separate operations throughout the year.
The ICRC has also assisted with practical arrangements for weddings - including security clearances for wedding guests - between Druse residents of the Golan and their prospective partners from Syria for 21 years. These ceremonies - which also present a rare occasion for separated family members to physically meet, if only for one hour - are organized and conducted under ICRC auspices, in the demilitarized zone at the Kuneitra crossing point. In 2008, arrangements were made to facilitate a wedding in the UN-controlled demilitarized zone.