Borderline views

Opinion is divided regarding regime change in the Golan Heights Druse town of Majdal Shams.

Majdal Shams 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Majdal Shams 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Rolling through the hills of the Upper Galilee and crossing the Jordan River for the ascent onto the Golan Heights, recent history echoes through every kilometer of barbed wire, every charred tank turret left abandoned on the side of the road, every pockmarked building riddled with bullet holes and every military base. For Jews, the Golan Heights are a living monument to that war that marked a turning point not only in the history of the region but also in the country’s consciousness.
While Jews use the Golan as a reference point to dwell on the past, the Druse inhabitants of this plateau are rooted firmly in the present.
Majdal Shams, a small town with a population of 10,000, is the northernmost civilian enclave on the Israeli map, the Druse town that to most Israelis is just an afterthought, the last signpost on the road to the ski slopes of Mount Hermon. But it is also one of the country’s few links to Syria, since it is the Druse inhabitants of the Golan Heights who came under Israeli control after the 1967 conflict.
Even though the inhabitants here carry blue Israeli identity cards, the Druse maintain their fealty to Syria while claiming the status of an occupied people. Syrian and Arab-language television stations are the preferred viewing choice, Arabic remains the most widely spoken language, and Druse youngsters eschew Israeli army service in favor of university studies in Damascus. Despite Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, Majdal Shams remains spiritually connected to Syria. Just like in Syria, the residents here have differing views on the unrest.
After the Six Day War, Majdal Shams was ruled by a military government. It was only in 1979 that the residents received benefits extended to all citizens, with the exception of the right to vote. While the government offered citizenship, few accepted under pressure from their fellow Druse, who viewed it as an act of betrayal.
“Public opinion here is divided into two,” says Salman Sakhrdeen, a human rights activist and chief spokesman for Al-Marsad, an NGO dedicated to monitoring the ill effects of Israel’s control of the Golan Heights on the Arab minority there. “It’s black and white.
I’m one of those who oppose Assad’s regime and his reforms.”
Sakhrdeen is unlike many Majdal Shams residents. He spent years in an Israeli prison – he was incarcerated 13 times, managing to utilize his time behind bars to earn a college degree – and his fluent Hebrew and deep familiarity with the local political discourse give him a unique point of view. He also stands out because he agreed to speak to an Israeli reporter.
A number of Druse residents were hesitant to share their views about the carnage in Syria. While some say it is due to fear that any statements they make against the regime would endanger their loved ones in Syria, others say they have no desire to “go outside the family” and air dirty Syrian laundry that could be used by Israeli reporters to score propaganda points.
“Why do the Israeli media have any interest in what goes on in Syria?” Sakhrdeen asks. “All of the Arab affairs commentators on television engaged in ‘humous Orientalism.’ Everyone who ate humous in Abu Ghosh [not far from the main television studios of Channels 2 and 10] all of a sudden is an expert on what goes on in the Middle East.”
A VISITOR to Majdal Shams can travel up the main thoroughfare toward Mount Hermon. Off to one side street sits an Israeli army base, where soldiers take in the panoramic view of the Heights and southwestern Syria. Just around the corner from the base is one of the town’s main squares, where one can get a glimpse of perhaps the most poignant expression of Syrian nationalism – a monument dedicated to Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druse leader who played a key role in the anti-colonialist revolt against the French in 1925.
Just in front of the monument, which stands at the center of an intersection ringed by convenience stores, insurance offices and supermarkets, a man in his early 30s is approached by an Israeli reporter. The man is wearing a white T-shirt bearing the map of Syria with a flag superimposed within its borders. In the center of the map is a tiny drawing of the contours of the Golan Heights, shackled to the Syrian homeland. The Arabic writing on the T-shirt reads: “No more occupation of the Syrian Arab Golan.”
When the man is asked to comment on what is taking place in Syria, he politely declines. “We don’t talk to Israeli reporters,” he says. “Nor do we want the Israeli media dealing with Syria. This is an internal Syrian matter. The Israelis should just give us the Golan back.”
“He probably thought you were a Shin Bet agent,” says Salman Ayoub, a 51- year-old Majdal Shams resident. “People here are suspicious of outsiders.”
Ayoub is a Syrian Druse who has worked in agriculture all his life, building extensive contacts with Israeli Jews through his numerous jobs on kibbutzim atop the Heights, as well as within Israel proper. Still, he describes himself as first and foremost a Syrian patriot, and he has no wish to see Bashar Assad removed from power.
“A lot of the trouble taking place in Syria is because of the terrorists who are coming into the country from Lebanon and Turkey,” he says. “There are other countries that are trying to exploit the unrest for their own advantage.”
Ayoub is a faithful viewer of Al Dunya television, the satellite network that is owned by Assad’s first cousin. He says that the Assad regime is the victim of a campaign to undermine it, orchestrated by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“Does Qatar want freedom in Syria?” he rhetorically asks. “Where does Saudi Arabia get off preaching morality? That’s a country where women who dare drive cars are beaten. They want freedom in my country? Let them first do it for their people.
What do they want from me?” Ayoub remains in contact with a cousin who lives in Jaramana, a predominantly Christian and Druse town just outside the capital, Damascus. Ayoub’s son spent two years studying at Damascus University.
“Since Assad’s father came to power, there have been 40 years of stability there,” he says. “There’s something we need to understand: The [Syrian] people are not educated for freedom. Look at what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Culturally, they are not ready for democracy.”
When Sakhrdeen is asked about the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown, he seems affronted that pro-Israel advocates refer to the bloodshed there as a way of deflecting criticism of the Israeli army’s actions against the Palestinians.
“There’s killing in Syria just like there was killing in Operation Cast Lead,” he says. “Is there a difference? What did the Israeli army do last year when [Syrians tried to cross into the border]? Didn’t the Israeli army kill 23 people [in May of last year during the Nakba Day protests]?” He pauses, before adding sardonically, “Does that ruin your appetite?” Sakhrdeen believes that while Israel and Syria remain enemies, the Israeli government is not so eager to see the Damascus regime replaced.
“It’s hard to be certain, but I think Israel is very hesitant [about supporting the rebels], and it is fearful of whoever comes after Assad,” he says. “I also think that Israel is trying to restrain the US and the Europeans in [their efforts] to go after Assad.”