OCCUPIED MAJDAL SHAMS, Syria: The Golan’s native Druze have remained fiercely loyal to Damascus through 46 years of Israeli occupation but as the Syrian war draws ever closer, it is dividing the tight-knit community. With the sound of fighting between Damascus troops and rebels booming from just across the armistice line that separates them from their compatriots, some among the Golan’s 20,000 Druze are beginning to question their longstanding devotion to the Syrian regime.
In the territory’s main town Majdal Shams, most residents, at least publicly, profess the same staunch Syrian nationalism that has seen nearly all of them spurn Israel’s offer of passports since it occupied the strategic plateau in 1981.
But the rebel sympathies of a minority, evidenced by a Syrian opposition flag planted atop an Israeli army communications mast just outside town, are stoking sometimes acrimonious splits, even within families.
“Imagine someone refusing to speak to his own brother because of a difference of opinion over Syria,” said 20-year-old Nour, an engineering student from Majdal Shams.
“A standard question is who are you with? Many people are not friends anymore because of this.
“A father slapped his son in front of everybody” in the town during an argument about Syria, she said.
The sensitivity of the rift within the community over the devastating war between President Bashar Assad’s troops and the rebels fighting to overthrow him means that most Druze speak only on condition of anonymity.
“I’m pro the Syrian people, and therefore pro-Assad,” said shopkeeper Abu Zayd – not his real name.
“There’s no such thing as the Free Syrian Army,” the 30-year-old said. “It’s a Pakistani, Afghan, American army ... which wants to wage jihad.”
Umm Zahir, again not her real name, expressed fears shared by many Druze about the many Sunni Islamists in rebel ranks, including fighters of the jihadist Nusra Front who are active just over the armistice line and for whom their breakaway faith is heretical.
“I’m scared that if the rebels win, Nusra and Al-Qaeda will come here, and they believe anyone who’s not from their religion is infidel and should be killed,” she said.
“I support Assad, and I’m for elections. If there are elections, the people will choose Bashar,” the 40-year-old shoe-seller said.
One elderly farmer said he still remembered the years before the 1967 Middle East war, when the whole Golan right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee was still under Syrian control.
“Our president is Bashar Assad and our army is the Syrian Arab Army,” he said proudly.
The uprising against him launched in March 2011 “is a conspiracy ... in which 130 countries are participating,” he added, alluding to the international diplomatic recognition extended to the armed opposition.
But as the reality of the bloodshed draws ever closer with wounded Syrians seeking treatment on the Israeli side of the armistice line, some Majdal Shams residents are ready to voice public support for the rebels.
“We’re against Assad,” said Fawzi Mahmud, 42.
“Assad showed himself to be worse than a dictator, killing everyone without regard. He doesn’t care.”
Mahmud said that the spread of sympathy for the Syrian opposition had been helped by the gradual erosion of the distinct Golan Druze identity and its attachment to Damascus.
“We don’t feel we have any particular identity, Druze or other. We’ve been under Israeli occupation for 40 years,” he said.
In the past, Syria’s Druze have played a leading role in some of the major events of the country’s history.
A monument that adorns a roundabout in Majdal Shams recalls the part played by the minority community in the nationwide revolt against French colonial rule that erupted in Druze areas in 1925.
Nearly 90 years on, their country’s future is being decided on the other side of the Israeli-patrolled barbed wire and they can only watch on as divided spectators.