MAJDAL SHAMS, Israel -- For the past 45 years, this village in the Golan Heights has been in a virtual no-man's-land monitored by the United Nations at the border between Israel, where it technically is, and Syria. Now, with civil war raging in the latter country, Majdal Shams and its residents are re-examining their ties with the former country -- and their allegiance to Bashar Assad and his Syrian regime.
That's the conflict facing the people of Majdal Shams, one of five Druze villages Israel captured and annexed after winning the 1967 Six-Day War against neighboring Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.
The shells from mortars landing just over the mountaintops in Syria can be heard at night, a chilling reminder of the proximity of the violence that has embroiled Syria since the war began.
The Druze, a minority religious group that is an offshoot of Islam, were traditionally loyal to the Syrian regime, and they have lived under Israeli occupation reluctantly. Although 90 percent of the estimated 18,000 Druze living in the Golan Heights carry Israeli identity cards and receive government benefits such as health care and pension payments, in general they have refused to accept full Israeli citizenship.
They come from the same Alawite sect as the embattled Syrian president. But as residents see Assad's loyalists murder his own people, the town is now divided over whether to denounce the regime.
Pining For Syria
Many believe the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981 and the Druze still call "occupied land," will ultimately be returned to Syria. In the center of Majdal Shams, a statue of Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, an Arab nationalist who led his armies against the French Mandate during the Great Syrian Revolt from 1925 to 1927, stands prominently. Someone affixed a Syrian flag atop the statue, another sign of where the town's allegiance truly is.
And yet, ordinary Druze here are reluctant to talk about the ongoing conflict in Syria, as was the case with one man selling fruit at a street stand. When asked about his thoughts on Assad, he simply said, "I am religious, and religious men don't talk about politics."
"They are doing the most sensible thing: publicly reaffirming their attachment to Syria while privately enjoying the benefits of the Israeli welfare state," said Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University, who twice chaired an advisory commission to the government of Israel on Druze affairs.
Ben-Dor said, given the Israeli annexation of the Golan was widely criticized, many Druze believe that someday the Golan Heights will be returned to Syria, whether through a peace deal or otherwise. And because many have relatives across the border who are attached to the regime, they are careful what they say from within Israel.
"They're attached to the regime for personal, family reasons or communal, sectarian reasons. They are very uncertain about the future and worry that their relatives in Syria might be persecuted or deprived something if they are too political," Ben-Dor said.
The Druze, numbering roughly 1 million worldwide, are mostly found in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. They're often viewed as a reclusive community, and, mindful of their status as a religious minority, they have prided themselves on maintaining political neutrality in the country they live in. Many have refused to speak in public on the Syrian conflict because they worry either Assad or the rebels may react against Druze villages in Syria.
'They're Not Rebels, They're Terrorists'
So far, they have lived there as a religious minority under the protection of Assad. That's why some of them maintain support for the regime, fearing that if he falls, then a pro-Muslim party less tolerant of their religious difference, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will rise to power.
"They're not rebels, they're terrorists," said Hamad Awidat, a film producer and journalist who lives in Majdal Shams, speaking of the anti-Assad militia across the border, who he believes have strong connections to al Qaeda. He wasn't worried about expressing a view that would not be well-received in the West: "They are ruining our way of life, and they want to destroy our democratic Syria."
Awidat is openly supportive of Assad, calling him "a good man" who brought "stability" to Syria. But the killings? The shelling of entire cities? That's not true, he said. In a conspiratorial tone, he confided that reports of Assad committing genocide against his own people "are all lies."
According to Ben-Dor, it's easy to see where this Druze point of view comes from. There is a valid argument that the truth about just who is who, and how much violence is happening in Syria, is still unknown, he said.
"How do we know the numbers about casualties are true?" Ben-Dor asked, noting that the count of victims is often attributed to nongovernmental organizations. "We don't know which organization is that, how accurate they are, and what bias they have politically. The U.N. people reported massive war crimes as well as war crimes of the opposition ... neither side are the very good guys. It's a very murky situation, we know that atrocities [are] committed by both sides."
Yet, in contrast to the traditional Druze support for Assad, there is a growing number of those like Shefaa Abu Jabal. The 26-year-old lawyer is among the small group of young and educated activists openly aligning with the Syrian opposition just across the border. She is critical of her fellow Druze who she believes blindly support Assad.
"They think we have to protect him because he is protecting the Druze," Abu Jabal said. "They didn't go for the idea that he's using violence and this might touch children and this will cost us lives ... they choose to think in a very different way."
Abu Jabal, who was the first Druze woman to graduate from an Israeli university, is putting her education to work in the form of political activism. On Twitter, under the handle @Shefaa, and on Facebook, she posts pictures of protesters and lit candles wrapped in the Syrian flag, a memorial for the anti-Assad fighters who have died in the conflict.
Since the Syrian Revolution began in March of last year, Abu Jabal said, young Israeli Druze -- many who haven't spent more than a few vacations inside Syria -- have rediscovered their roots.
"For many of us, it was like the first time we could feel the Syrian person inside," she said.
But her activism has provoked strong, and sometimes violent, backlash from fellow Druze in Majdal Shams.
After Abu Jabal signed her name on a public petition denouncing the regime, pro-Assad protesters marched past her family's house, cursing and spitting at her.
One anonymous letter she received, she said, warned that she "shouldn't go out in the street ... your opinion is not welcome." She said the letter further stated that, as Druze, "we have to be united, one community, the religious people have to make the decisions, and we decided that we are supporting Assad."
But across town, Dolann Abu Salach, 31, the young mayor of Majdal Shams, minimized the pro-Assad sentiments in his village in an interview with a group of reporters in his office.
"Every time, there is something pro-Assad happening here. There are a lot of people from the former Druze villages gathering in a small place so it looks like a mass of people. However, the percentage of people that actually support Assad is small, they just make sure they have a lot of cameras and media around them."
The mayor wasn't just unhappy with the press. He called the recent indictment of a 28-year-old Israeli Druze man for spying on Israel on behalf of Syria "an aberration." According to the indictment, Iyad Jamil al-Johari had been in regular contact with Syrian agents and had provided them with intelligence about Israeli Defense Forces' deployment across northern Israel.
Israelis afraid of divided loyalties may note that most of the Druze living in the Golan Heights have refused to become citizens. But Salach, who happens to be a Golan Druze with Israeli citizenship, said that attitudes among the younger generation may slowly change, as they look what's happening northward in neighboring Syria.
Not only is the conflict changing Druze sentiments about Assad, said the mayor, but it's also making them rethink their relationship to Israel. He believes more and more Druze will begin to ask for Israeli citizenship if the violence in Syria continues.
"When someone sees so close to them a very uncertain situation, and a very dangerous situation," Salach said, "it makes you appreciate you live in a safe country, where you do not worry about your security or your family's security."