Tuesday, 7 August 2012
From The New York Times:
August 7, 2012
Echoes of Syria’s War in the Golan Heights
By ISABEL KERSHNER
BUQATA, Golan Heights — As fighting rages in Syria between the government forces and the rebels, the conflict is playing out on a smaller scale in Syrian Druse villages like this one, on the Israeli-held portion of the Golan Heights across the old cease-fire line.
Divisions have sharpened among the 20,000 or so Syrian citizens of the Druse religious sect who inhabit this plateau, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war and later effectively annexed. While many remain loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, there is an increasingly vocal group of opponents. The split has, on occasion, spilled into violence.
In April, the father of Wiam Amasha, a well-known anti-Assad activist from Buqata, was run over by a car during an altercation with pro-Assad villagers in what family members and supporters said was a murder attempt. The victim spent nearly two months in Israeli hospitals. [see what is in bold below, and read my Comment on the Amashas, father and son, at the end]
Then one Friday in July more than 100 anti-Assad demonstrators in the Golan Heights’s largest village, Majdal Shams, were set upon by Assad supporters wielding sticks and stones and throwing eggs, the protesters said. One protester from each camp was said to have been injured in the ensuing brawl.
With close-knit families and clans here already divided, there is fear on both sides that a slide into bloodshed would be disastrous. Druse community leaders have acted quickly to broker understandings and restore calm.
“We do not want to reach the point of fighting,” Mr. Amasha said. “We are all related — we are brothers and cousins.”
Only a few of the Golan Druse have chosen to take Israeli citizenship. Despite the relative freedoms they enjoy under Israeli control, many say that the sense of belonging to Syria has not waned, even after more than 40 years of Israeli governance. Loyalty to the Assad family has long been a part of their identity.
The Druse, who practice a largely secret religion that is often described as an offshoot of Ismaili Islam, have fared reasonably well in Syria as a small minority under the rule of the Assads, who belong to another minority sect, the Alawites.
Here, the reasons for still supporting the Assad government, or at least not publicly opposing it, include fear for relatives in Syria and vested interests. Scores of students from the Golan Heights are studying in Syrian universities, and apple farmers here ship their crops to Syria.
The Druse also say they are anxious about their prospects if an Islamic government rises in Syria.
Jala Abu Awad, who runs a tire shop in Buqata, said of Mr. Assad: “He was a quiet neighbor. He gave us no problems.”
But more Golan Druse have begun to speak out against the Assads, particularly in light of their brutal efforts to suppress the Syrian uprising.
“I have been against Bashar al-Assad since he took over from his father,” Rabia Abu Salah said as he unpacked frozen chicken at a grocery store in Majdal Shams. “The regime is like a mafia.”
On Tuesday, 86 Druse who were studying in Syria returned home to the Israeli side, about 10 days ahead of schedule, because of the intensifying violence in Syria. They were bused to Buqata, where women in traditional clothing, with large white scarves wrapped around their heads, and other family members had been waiting since the early hours of the morning.
“I will not lie to you: I hope to return to Damascus University and finish my studies,” said Waleed Abu Shaheen, a 22-year-old medical student, whose family could hardly stop caressing him. Qweenat Asal, another medical student, said: “All is well. We are here all right.”
But all was not well for Dr. Moein Abu Salah, who is from Majdal Shams but married a Syrian woman named Mirfat and had three children while living in Damascus. Dr. Salah, 43, took his family to the border but then left them behind because they did not receive permits to enter Israel in time to catch the convoy of buses on Tuesday.
“Because of a signature, Mirfat and the children had to take the dangerous road back to Damascus and put their life in danger,” said Daniel Abi Salah, the doctor’s brother. “We, the family, took the hard decision, and Moein crossed over without his wife and kids. We pray that maybe Israel will come forward and give the lifesaving signature.”
Israel and Syria are still technically at war, but the quiet that has prevailed for decades along this frontier has allowed Israel to develop the area as a military arena and a tourist destination.
The wild and rocky terrain, which commands northern Israel and its main water sources, is also home to up to 20,000 Israeli Jews in more than 30 settlements, though Israel’s annexation of the area has not been internationally recognized.
In winter, Israelis ski on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the shadow of military camps. In the summer and the fall, Israelis flock here for the cherry- and apple-picking seasons and to eat in Druse restaurants.
In Majdal Shams, the border fence has been fortified with a steel barrier, after protesters, most of them Palestinians, breached the frontier last year, drawing deadly fire from Israeli soldiers. The last row of houses here practically touches the boundary.
Recently, when the fighting in Syria grew close, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, peered across the lines through binoculars and said that if Israel had to stop waves of refugees heading this way, “we will stop them.”
Mr. Amasha, 30, the anti-Assad activist from nearby Buqata whose father was run over, says he is just as fervently opposed to the Israeli occupation of this territory. He has spent most of his years since the age of 16 in Israeli prisons.
First, he said, he was arrested after he threw Molotov cocktails at police and army positions and for raising Syrian flags in the village. Then he and a few comrades dismantled a land mine with the intention of using parts for weapons, but it exploded, injuring them. Finally, he was convicted of planning to capture Israeli soldiers to exchange them for Palestinian and Syrian prisoners, though he denied it. He was released in October, one of hundreds of security prisoners, most of them Palestinians, who were exchanged for a captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Like other critics, Mr. Amasha said that Mr. Assad had made no genuine effort to liberate the Golan Heights and had opposed Israel only “on television.” He said he believed that only a strong, democratic Syria could liberate the territory, whether through war or through negotiations.
Sitting under a plaque with a Syrian flag in his family’s salon, he said that the local version of the shabiha, or pro-Assad thugs, had been harassing him and his family. They have been ostracized by the community, he added, even though his sisters-in-law support Mr. Assad.
He said that his father, an insurance agent, was rammed by a car driven by shabiha after he had confronted a group of them who were noisily cursing the family outside their home and playing pro-Assad songs on loudspeakers.
But neither side seems to want violence to spiral here.
“This is just a small place, a few villages,” said Salman Fakhr Eddin, a strong critic of the Assad government and a coordinator at Al Marsad — the Arab Center for Human Rights in the Golan Heights.
“Sometimes keeping quiet is more important than politics,” he added. “We are not going to make the change in Syria.”
Note what Isabel Kershner does not say, and what the reader has to figure out for himself. Mr. Amasha the Younger has been involved in anti-Israeli activities since the age of 16 (he is now 30). He threw Molotov cocktails at the police. He plotted to capture Israeli soldiers to be used to obtain freedom for Arab terrrorists. He was, is, and no doubt always will be a fanatical and vicious opponent of Israel and its people. But when his father was run down by fellow Druse, it was Israelis who -- no doubt for free, for Israeli hospitals are full of free clinics and free medical care given to Arabs, though this is almost never made known to the world, and certainly not in the pages of The New York Times -- was nursed back to health not in an Arab hospital, but in an Israeli hospital. Do you think he had insurance? Do you think he could pay what no doubt cost tens of thousands of dollars (a two-month hospital stay)? Or do you think the Israelis treated the father of someone who plotted to help terrorists kidnap Israelis with the same solicitousness with which any patient would be treated in an Israeli hospital? You know the answer to this. Why then do we allow others to ignore such a telling detail? Why do we allow Isobel Kershner, and The New York Times, to be careful not to spell this out?
Posted on 08/07/2012 10:11 PM by Hugh Fitzgerald
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