Golan Druze in bitter split over Syria bloodshed

Every day, dozens of curious Druze climb a stony hillside in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to see if they can catch a glimpse of the fierce fighting raging just over the border in Syria.

As the violence intensifies between rebels and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, a growing number of people are flocking to Buqaata village on the eastern flank of the Golan from where there is a clear view of clashes in the nearby Syrian village of Jebata al-Khashab.

With a front-row seat and the sound of gunfire audible in their homes, locals say the fighting has divided their village of some 5,000 people, where almost everyone considers themselves Syrian.

"It's difficult to understand the idea of a Syrian killing another Syrian, especially after last week when we went to the hill and saw them heavily shelling the village," says villager Mahmud Amasha.

"It's a terrible feeling of bitterness and despair when you see the Syrian army killing Syrian civilians who are asking for their freedom," he told AFP.

Amasha, who runs an insurance business in Buqaata, says his views on the conflict have cost him dearly and that three months ago he was run over by a car driven by local Assad supporters.

"A group of young men ran me over in their car," says the 57-year-old, putting it down to his family's public support of the Syrian opposition.

He suffered a broken thigh bone and spent a month in hospital, and is still hobbling around on crutches.

His son, Wiyyam, who spent 12 years in an Israeli jail for plotting to kidnap soldiers, sparked an uproar after he made public his support for the anti-Assad protesters just two months after the conflict erupted in March 2011.

"This wasn't the only time we were harassed, but we try to ignore it," Amasha sighs. "Our house is targeted on a regular basis because our views are not considered as loyal to the regime."

The conflict has caused sharp divisions within the Druze towns and villages on the strategic Golan Heights plateau, part of which was occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never accepted by the international community.

"At the start of the revolution, there were few supporters but now people are constantly showing their support," says Amasha, who claims the number of those supporting Assad is dwindling.

But even so, the division creates problems within this tightly knit community.

"There are supporters of the regime who we deal with on a day-to-day basis and we have to find a middle ground. And there are a handful of thugs who only understand a Syria run like this," he told AFP.

"Life is not easy like this."

For Ali Abu Awwad, the liberation of the Golan Heights will only happen after the fall of the current Syrian regime.

"Never in history have we heard of a national army or regime that claims to be patriotic slaughtering its own people for nearly 17 months," says Abu Awwad, a doctor who studied medicine in Damascus.

"What, his father didn't do enough? It is like Hafez al-Assad is still ruling the country from his grave."

Hafez al-Assad, who ran the country with an iron fist for three decades, brutally crushed an Islamist revolt in the early 1980s, killing thousands of people.

Abu Awwad, who has a small flag of the Free Syrian Army in his house, says that the Druze of the Golan have not yet announced a unified position on the events in Syria because of the Israeli occupation.

"Being under occupation has made everybody put aside the contradictions because we need national unity to face the occupation," he explains.

In the center of Majdal Shams, the largest town in the Golan Heights, stands a large statue topped by a giant Syrian flag. Every Friday, a group of locals has been gathering to demonstrate support for the rebels.

But there are some who still support the embattled Syrian leader.

"All of Buqaata is with Assad," insists a young boy who looks barely 12 years old, who has come up to the hill with two friends to watch the battle playing out.

"They are bombing terrorists over there," he explains, pointing towards Jebata al-Khashab.

For local pharmacist Gandhi al-Kahaloni, the bloodshed in Syria has "nothing to do with reform, freedom or democracy."

"It is an attempt to sabotage the country and divert it from the path of resistance and opposition to Israel and the United States in order to create chaos and sectarian in-fighting," he told AFP at his pharmacy in the town center.

Rolled up in his drawer is a poster of Assad, which he says he doesn't put up in his shop "because this is a place of business."

"Assad will remain a lion in his own den which is Syria, and he will keep national unity intact," he insists of the president, whose surname means lion.

"There is no other leader."


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