Golan Heights Druze sit precariously between Syria and Israel

MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights — Wearing the traditional dress of a religious Druze — pleated, baggy black trousers and a roomy black tunic with a starched white tarboush, similar to a fez — Ramez Rabah fumbled in his pocket to make sure a white document the size of a business card was still there.

On a narrow, meandering road surrounded by silence and wisps of cloud, it is unclear if the year is 1914 or 2014. Then and now, the Druze inhabited this place, perhaps defined it. Then as now, the silence was interrupted by gunfire. Rabah, 6 feet 2 inches tall and broad-shouldered, emerges from the haze.

The Druze have had a constant presence here. But even as the region ripples and swells with battle, they are not a party to the fight.

One hundred years ago, as Europe seethed, Rabah’s ancestors hoped to be rid of the Ottomans who ruled this region for a millennium. They wanted to be part of an emerging, independent Syrian nation. Twenty years later, they rebelled against the French, whose “sphere of influence” reached this brisk and rocky border. Today, what remains of Syria is torn apart, Europe looks askance and Rabah yearns for that Syrian nation like an orphan yearns for a mother.

The small piece of paper Rabah checked for was an authorization issued by the Israeli army to enter what is identified by bright yellow signs as a “Closed Military Zone” near the top of Mount Hermon, a ridge that at 9,000 feet above sea level is the highest peak in the region.

Rabah is here for the honey, specifically the beehives he keeps on this summit. They provide what is considered among Israel’s finest and most floral honey, rumored to have the effect of a “natural Viagra.”

Israel controls about 10 percent of the mountain’s contested territory, and its side of the border feels deceptively pastoral. Rabah is one of about five Israeli civilians permitted access to the summit’s unique ecosystem, a zone untouched by human intervention. For half of every year, he lives amid the herbs and shrubs there.

The only catch? Rabah does not identify as Israeli — vehemently not.

“The only thing I ask is that you clarify that I am a Syrian,” he says as he descends from the heights. “In anything you say about me, make sure you say I’m a Syrian.”

Rabah was born in 1966. According to his mother it was “11 months before the Jews came,” which was in June 1967. That makes him one of the last of Syrian-born Golan Druze. Declining the offer of becoming an Israeli national, his Israeli-issued travel document lists his citizenship as “undefined.”

The Druze, who today number about 1 million, are known for a legendary loyalty to their countries of birth.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was drawn up in 1916 as the Great War raged, and it gave shape to and created borders for the British and French vision of a modern Middle East — adhering to their colonial aspirations for influence and domination.

Among the various Levantine peoples whose futures Mark Sykes and François George-Picot mapped out during their negotiations on the borders of a post-Ottoman Middle East, the Druze stand out: they were the only distinct nation not demanding self-determination.

British leaders of World War I had made contradictory promises to Arab sheikhs demanding self-rule and Zionists claiming the Jews’ right over their Biblical patrimony. Britain attempted to navigate between France’s openly imperialist ambitions and American President Woodrow Wilson’s considerate liberalism — all while securing freedom of movement for Christian pilgrims visiting the holy sites.

But they paid little mind to the Druze, a small, mysterious sect of rugged Arab mountain-dwellers who are considered apostates by Islam.

Then as now, the Druze straddle an area that extends over the small corner in which Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. Then as now, their political impact far outstrips their numbers. The Great Syrian Revolt of 1925, the most significant rebellion against European mandatory rule in the Levant, was led by Druze nobleman Sultan Pasha al-Atrash.

Jump 90 years ahead: the hero of Israel’s recent battle in Gaza is Golani Brigade commander Col. Ghassan Alian, a Druze from the Galilee town of Shfaram.

The lay of the land

If you stand at the promenade just outside Kibbutz Ein Zivan, an agricultural communal village 15 miles south of Majdal Shams, Rabah’s hometown and the Golan’s Druze capital, you catch a bracing close-up of where things stand now.

Laid out neatly before you, where until recently vineyards offered the only visual distraction, you now see a rectangular campus the size of a small town. It is the new, undeclared headquarters for the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which since March 1974 has monitored Israel’s demarcation line with Syria.

Since September, when a Fijian contingent was kidnapped and held for two weeks by the al-Nusra Front, a derivative of al Qaeda, in the third such abduction since the civil war erupted over three years ago, the UN has quietly shut down operations inside Syria.

A few hundred yards to the left, you see a small white cube: Israel’s border post at Kuneitra.

And about 150 yards to the left of the border post is al-Nusra.

Gazing down at the Lego-like array of structures, Col. (ret.) Eshkol Shokron, who commanded the Israel Defense Forces Golan division until his retirement in 2012, says “our forecast is that the situation at the border is just going to get worse. The only question is when.”

He does not consider the possibility of Syrian president Assad regaining control over the country. “Syria will split into provinces and very quickly we’ll see terror attacks in Israel,” Shokron said.

Whether UNDOF will be renewed or reconfigured or reconstituted as a more potent force depends to a great extent on the willingness of UN member states to risk the lives of their service members in a small, impenetrable patch of land that seems never to find peace. It depends in their faith in the very idea of “peacekeeping.”

The concept of an international union that could secure peace emerged from the ruins of WWI.

Chen Kertcher, a Haifa University professor and an expert on peacekeeping operations, describes Woodrow Wilson’s singular achievement in the creation of the League of Nations as “the first global security system that held that no country may attack another country, and the system must defend a nation under attack.”

Standing on the Golan, the model seems extremely remote. And the question of what defines a “nation under attack” seems impossible to tackle.

The main issue Wilson tangled with, according to Kertcher, was “the question of self-determination.”

“There was tension turning his ideas into practice. Although he called for self-determination, in practice sometimes — such as in the case of Poland — he preferred the sustainability of the Polish state, leaving within it large, disenfranchised minorities.”

Or, in the words of Steven Lobell, a professor of political science at the University of Utah who addressed the Hebrew University’s conference on “New Perspectives on the First World War, “as much as we want to redraw those borders, we don’t really want to.”

Among the advantages of even an abhorrent self-sustaining state, Lobell explains, is that “many minority groups have deals that protect them, and when the state collapses, those deals collapse.”

This sentiment is echoed with remarkable precision in Israel’s dilemma today: Assad, its most loathed enemy, now seems a preferable option to the bands of jiahdis who threaten the hegemony of his rule.

“I don’t see terror organizations respecting international norms like Assad,” Shokron says. “Soon they will engage in terror and Israel will have to engage. It will be a dramatic development.”

Alex Kudish, Ein Zivan’s orchards manager, refers to the nearby perimeter as “Israel’s quietest border until three years ago.”

It is a ubiquitous line among residents of the Golan, uttered in a tone suggesting shell shock. As recently as the mid-2000s, Israeli prime ministers were engaged in serious negotiations to return the part of the Golan plateau held by Israel to Syria in exchange for an enduring peace.

Last month an errant Syrian mortar hit a winery on the kibbutz, severely injuring an employee and damaging tanks and barrels. A dozen kids had just left the premises. The thousands of liters of spilt wine looked uncomfortably gory.

In general, the sense here is that no one knows what to do. The UN is considering deploying drones on the Golan Heights, but it is difficult to understand the proposal as anything but the expression of a fantasy that peace can be kept with no risk. Prof. Kertcher has just put the final touches on an article about UN peacekeeping operations in Israel entitled “From Plowshares to Swords.”

If UNDOF disintegrates, he says, “it’s a signal to non-government forces around the world that if they push hard enough, they will win.”

Or, in other words, that one hundred years after the Great War anarchy lies around every corner, and there is no system in place to thwart it. As the French might have said, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it stays the same).

“The war to end all wars” introduced chemical weaponry to modern warfare. In 2014, in an awful reverberation of 1914, horrifying images of civilians mutilated and killed by chemical weapons spread like wildfire. Assad’s use of gas was confirmed by Western nations. In October, it appeared that the so-called Islamic State may have adopted the same technique in the Syrian city of Kobane.

The looming possibility that a spark in Ottawa, in Ein Zivan or in the Sinai may ignite a regional conflict is now more present than it has been in a lifetime.

On the global stage the Golan is itself a relative speck consisting of 700 square miles of land. The distance from its highest point, where Ramez Rabah keeps bees “that gather pollen from Lebanon, Israel and Syria” to its lowest corner, where Syria and Israel meet The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is about 45 miles.

Room for optimism

Ramez Rabah is an optimist.

“How long will the Israelis last here?” he asks, rhetorically. “Fifty years? A hundred years? The Christians came. The Jews came. Soon they will leave and Syria will come back.”

Perhaps the last believer in the idea of Greater Syria, a somewhat mystical concept greater and more powerful than the state, he compares Bashar al-Assad to an illness. “If your mother is sick you do not say ‘she is not my mother,'” he says softly. “You don’t turn away from her. Syria is our mother and father.”

He may be the last of his breed. Dolan Abu Saleh, the 36-year head of Majdal Shams’ municipal council, the equivalent of its mayor, sits comfortably at his desk before an Israeli flag and portraits of the president of Israel and its prime minister. Abu Saleh is considered one of the most dynamic young leaders on the Israeli political scene.

What comes to his mind when he thinks of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druze leader of the Syrian Revolt, who graces Majdal Shams’ central square in the form of an heroic bronze statue?

“I think of the Druze people, of course,” he allows, “but I don’t like extremism about Druze identity so much. I also remember Farid el-Atrash and Asmahan —the singing siblings. They are no less important for us to remember.”

Farid el-Atrash, a brother of the Pasha, is considered one of the greatest voices in the history of Arab music. Asmahan, a sister, is more of a niche singer. Abu Salah keeps recordings of her greatest hits in his car.

“The Druze are known for their loyalty to the land in which they live,” he continues, easily, “and I live in Israel. I will not lie to my children. I won’t say Israel is bad and you belong to Syria. I can’t lie to my children by raising the Syrian flag when for me, personally, I have a country that provides me with health care, respect, freedom, welfare and security that is considered the best in the world.”

There is no allure for him in the idea of Syria as a motherland.

“A mother that cannot provide security for her children is not a mother,” he says curtly.

Majdal Shams lies on the border. Men can sometimes be seen loitering on hills on the outskirts of town, observing combat on the other side of the security fence. Abu Saleh, father to three young children, asks no one in particular, “What will happen to the children there? Sometimes I can’t think of anything else all day,” he shudders. “You cannot compare our lives to theirs.”

A flyer created by the IDF Home Front Command about contingency arrangements has been distributed to all residents. In the event that Druze on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights will ask for shelter in Israel, Majdal Shams and the IDF have developed an emergency procedure.

Druze elders have been drafted to act as community leaders should the previously unimaginable need arise.

“It’s not happening yet,” Abu Saleh says, “But we are sure the IDF will be there when we need it.”

Seen from an historical perspective his position is not that radical. He was born in 1978, 11 years after the Six-Day War.

Nor, perhaps, is that of the Druze people. Lobell compares their situation to that of the Jews who flourished during the Ottoman Empire, pointing out that they too “never fought to have a state.”

If there is any place on earth that makes plain the fact that borders are constantly shifting while remaining in place, like an animal under a blanket, is it this tiny, verdant and windswept crag, a point in which four modern nations meet, in which everything changes and nothing changes at all.