GOLAN, 17 May 2011 (IRIN) - When thousands of Palestinian refugees gathered on the Syrian border with Israel near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights recently, local villagers were stunned. It was the first time in more than 20 years that there had been trouble on this border.
As the crowd surged towards Israeli territory, the Israeli military shot eight protesters dead - on 15 May, the anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, a date known as `Nakba’ (catastrophe) by Palestinians.
“IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] forces opened fire in order to prevent the violent rioters from illegally infiltrating Israeli territory; a number of rioters have infiltrated and are violently rioting in the village,” the Israeli military said in a statement.
Around 200 Palestinian refugees living in Syria managed to push through the Israeli-guarded border into the nearby village of Majdal Shams where they gathered to protest in the main square, sources said.
But the 15 May incident was only the latest sign of unrest in the usually calm hilltops of Golan. Since protests began in Syria in March, the Druze community in Golan has been divided between those who support the current regime of President Bashar al-Assad and those who support the protesters.
The Druze are a small monotheist religious sect found in several Middle East countries. In Golan, the local leadership is firmly pro-Assad and has taken a tough line against anyone supporting the protesters or criticizing the government, threatening social and religious exclusion. Opponents within the community disagree.
“They [those who speak out] are fighting for a just cause,” said local activist Shefa Abu Jabal, 25, who risks being thrown out of the Druze community for supporting the protesters inside Syria.
“There are generations [in Syria] who know nothing about politics, nothing about freedom of speech, nothing about elections," she added. "YouTube and every single Israeli website is blocked. They deserve freedom.”
Hard to verify information
It is difficult for foreign journalists to enter Syria, so it is hard to verify what is happening, but rights groups say at least 850 people, including women and children, have been killed in more than two months of protests. At least 8,000 have been arrested.
More than a million Druze people live in Syria. By far the biggest community is in Jabal al-Druze, a hilly volcanic region near the border with Jordan. It is the closest town to Deraa, a southern hub of the Syrian uprising.
Deraa, according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is an impoverished region where 32 percent of the population live below the poverty line, earning US$2 a day or less.
The Golan region has been occupied by Israel since June 1967. In December 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed the area and introduced its laws, jurisdiction and administration.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), basing its view on international humanitarian law, considers Golan an occupied territory and, as such, subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and to rules of customary law as reflected in the Hague Regulations of 1907.
No government has endorsed the Israeli annexation of Golan. An area of about 1,200sqkm, Golan is home to about 22,000 Syrians and 19,000 Israelis, according to the ICRC, but it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the vast majority of Syrians living in Golan to have exchanges with the rest of their country.
Fearful of Syrian retribution
Despite the restrictions, activists like Shefa are in touch with friends, family and fellow activists across Syria via Facebook. She says their reports of violence have been staggering but that many are too afraid of government retribution to publish details of what they have witnessed on the Internet.
“Every [other] person in Syrian is a security person,” Abu Jabal claimed. “They [the protesters] have seen the violence. There is something to be afraid of. Even for us - the people who just show our support on the Internet - we are afraid.”
While characteristically secretive and autonomous, the Druze are also famed for their loyalty to the nation in which they live, but the community in Golan considers itself Syrian, despite more than 40 years of Israeli occupation.
Local religious leader Sheikh Hussam, 35, said his community’s loyalty to the Syrian government should be understood as an expression of loyalty to Syria rather than its president.
“Most people here - 90 percent - support the [Syrian] government," he explained. "But this is more pro-Syria than pro-Assad. It is a matter of holding the principles of being a Syrian Arab under occupation."
Shefa insists there is more to it. She claims that a fear of retribution, both at home and for relatives abroad, is preventing her community from speaking out. “They believe somehow that belonging to Syria is belonging to the regime," she said. “But the main reason [they support Assad] is fear, and that is something I can understand.”