Syria divides Druze in occupied mountain homeland

March 29, 2012

MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights | Wed Mar 14, 2012 6:08pm EDT

(Reuters) – Kameel Khater’s friends used to creep out at night to spray anti-Israeli slogans on the walls of their village in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights. These days they have a different target for their graffiti – the government of near neighbor Syria.

Khater, 35, is one of about 10,000 Druze from the village of Majdal Shams, traditionally a bastion of supporters of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.

But the film and media student is among a growing number there who are starting to question their historical allegiances in the face of Assad’s violent crackdown on a year-long revolt against his rule.

The conflict has divided the village that was captured by Israel from Syria in a 1967 war and still sees Syria as its homeland.

“We are an inseparable part of Syria. The Golan Heights are an inseparable part of Syria. We feel a national and religious belonging to it,” said Khater, sitting in his house, within sight of the Syrian border.

“(But) the Syrian regime should be protecting its children. Instead it is killing them … We talk about it all the time, everywhere in the village,” he added.

Khater’s house is surrounded by snow-capped mountains covered in wild flowers. But his attention is fixed on uglier images, playing out over the internet and satellite television, from Homs, Damascus and other Syrian battle grounds.

Khater’s Facebook page is covered with pictures of carnage, anti-Assad posters and caricatures. “What I want is to be an echo of the uprising,” he said.

He has even experimented with taking action. On top of his friends’ graffiti, they have also tried to organize small protests, antagonizing some parts of the increasingly divided community.

“Some people have told me they will no longer come to have their hair cut in my shop because of my opinions,” said Khater, who works as a hairdresser alongside his studies.

GRAFFITI

One person on the receiving end of the strengthening anti-Assad sentiment is Khater’s own cousin Wasf Khater, a doctor, who has had graffiti scrawled on the wall of his clinic.

“They did it because I support the (Syrian) regime,” he said. “It read, ‘Long live the Syrian revolution’. I erased one word so it now reads, ‘Long live Syria’.”

Footage from Syria of dead men, women and children, some with hands tied behind their backs, blood splattered on the walls around them, was showing on the widescreen TV in the doctor’s waiting room.

A Syrian TV station played the pictures in a loop. A caption at the bottom of the screen said the carnage was the work of terrorists. Assad has long blamed foreign-backed “terrorists” for provoking and leading the violence.

“Can you seriously believe the regime would kill all these people and broadcast the pictures on the same day the United Nations was convening to discuss Assad? He would be a complete fool to do that. What interest could it serve?” the physician said.

“I feel great sorrow and pain when I see these pictures (from Syria),” but the blood, he said, was on the hands of Western powers and their regional allies, trying to topple the president to promote their own interests in the Middle East.

“We know the regime has made mistakes. But the solution is simple. Bashar has accepted the people’s demands. There will be elections in May. Change should be brought about through the Syrian ballot box, legally,” the doctor added.

“HELPLESS”

His 19-year-old niece, Manar Abu Jabar, shifted uncomfortably in her chair while the doctor spoke. “I want people to know that not everyone in the Golan is with Assad,” she said later.

Manar said she cried when she first saw the pictures from Syria. “The doctor said only a fool would do that. Well Assad is a fool. What kind of person would kill his own people?” she said as the pictures played over and over. “I feel so helpless, there is nothing we can do from here.”

Many Majdal Shams residents have family in Syria and events the past year have become a delicate topic. Some in the village fear discussing them in the media could endanger their relatives.

Manar’s father, Fawzi Abu Jabar, said he does not ask his relatives there about the violence because he does not believe they can speak freely about it. But he himself does not hold back on criticism of Assad.

“When the masses took to the streets to demand freedom and dignity, the regime answered them with fire. Its brutality and rigid objection to real change could lead to civil war or outside intervention, which would not be good for anyone,” said Abu Jabar, 60.

He remembers when the Golan Heights were under Syrian rule. “After the war we were sure the Israeli occupation would soon be over,” he said.

Forty-five years on he is still certain that day will come, but fears it has been pushed even further into the future.

“As long as the political picture is unclear and the Syrian people are busy building their future, they will not be able to deal with (regaining) the Golan,” Abu Jabar said.

VILLAGE TENSION

Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, a move not recognized internationally. It gave the Druze there, who today number about 20,000, the option of citizenship. Most rejected it.

Along the narrow winding streets of Majdal Shams the shops and businesses carry signs in both Arabic and Hebrew. Women in tight jeans and heels walking beside others in traditional Druze black dresses and white veils.

Most residents make their living in agriculture. Many have studied in universities in Israel and Syria. Israel permits some Majdal Shams residents to visit Syria, which it regards as an enemy state.

At the entrance to a village cafe, Cuban music and reggae played over the loudspeakers in the evening as youngsters drifted in.

“Every day I hear people sitting at the bar talking about what is happening in Syria,” said Eiad Safadi, 29, the owner. “It pains and saddens all of us. Every family here has family there. This creates tension.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens)

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