Not on the fence: Druse in Majdal Shams

Golan Heights residents say they would prefer to live in Syria, even under a dictatorship, rather than in a democratic Israel.

Hamad Awidate, Druse from Majdal Shams 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Hamad Awidate, Druse from Majdal Shams 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
"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 said.
“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.
For 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 other side.
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 skepticism.
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.
You probably won’t find someone here who will say they are against Assad.”
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 for sports.
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.
All we 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 supporting him.”
“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,” Abu-Salah said.
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 some day.”