Caught In Firing Line, Syrian Druze Reject Israeli Aid In Golan

Druze in Majdal Shams on June 15, 2015.
Druze in Majdal Shams on June 15, 2015.
Patrick Strickland

MAJDAL AL-SHAMS â€" Anger is boiling over in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where local Syrian Druze on Monday attacked an ambulance and killed a wounded Syrian opposition fighter seeking medical treatment from the Israeli military.

The fighter was a member of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) in Quneitra and the Golan, according to that group's Facebook page. The RCC is a coalition of different armed factions in Syria, many of which are hardline Islamist groups.

The Druze, an offshoot sect of Shia Islam, are spread across the map of the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. In the Golan Heights, more than 20,000 Syrian Druze have lived under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war. Elsewhere, an estimated 800,000 Druze live in Syria and another 110,000 in Israel.

The attack came just days after thousands of Druze citizens of Israel rallied in Beit Jann, a village in the northern Galilee region, in support of Syrian Druze as the group is increasingly targeted for sectarian violence by armed Islamist groups in Syria.

The ambulance attack highlights growing tensions in the Golan Heights, where locals are angered that Israel provides medical treatment to opposition fighters who may be from groups that have recently attacked Druze communities in Syria.

In June 2014, Israeli military spokesperson Peter Lerner announced that Israel was providing medical treatment to wounded opposition fighters in the Golan Heights. "We give medical aid to people who are in dire need," he told Foreign Policy. "We don’t do any vetting or check where they are from, or which group they are fighting for, or whether they are civilians."

Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon again admitted that Israel has been providing "humanitarian assistance" to Syrian rebel groups.

Opposing intervention

Though many Druze communities in Israel have urged the country to intervene on behalf of their brethren in Syria, Druze living in the 70% of the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation largely reject Israeli support. Speaking to Syria Deeply, Golan residents said locals are split down the middle towards the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: some are still loyal to Assad while others support the four-year uprising against him.

But they tend to agree in their opposition to Israel’s occupation of the territory and potential involvement in the Syrian war, according to Yasser Khanger, a Majdal Shams-based poet and activist. He says many locals accuse Israel of “trying to exploit” the ongoing civil war in order to strengthen its grip on the Golan.

“We see that Israel is using Syrian suffering to promote the idea that it is a humane country,” Khanger told Syria Deeply. “In the Golan, we all oppose any alliance with Israel under any conditions. Israel cannot be concerned with the well-being of Syrian Druze while it occupies part of that group and supports the groups that slaughter Druze.”

On June 10, dozens of Syrian Druze were killed by fighters from the Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of al-Qaida, in the Idlib Province of the country’s northwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at the time. Just days later, Nusra Front leaders announced that the fighters had violated orders by killing the Druze and would be punished in an Islamic court.

In response, Israel is mulling the creation of a “safe zone” on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights in order to aid displaced Druze, according to Israeli media reports. Khanger rejects the assertion that Israel’s interests in Syrian Druze are humanitarian.

“Israel is trying to play a sectarian game,” the activist, who supports the Syrian uprising, commented. “We didn’t revolt against Assad’s oppression in order to legitimize the Israeli occupation. Israel and the Syrian regime are similar to us when it comes to crimes and murder. ”

"Pure intentions"

Aamer Ibrahim, a Majdal Shams-activist and co-founder of Uploading Conscription, a group that campaigns against Israeli settlements and economic projects in the region, notes that now is the “hardest period” endured by Syrians since the war broke out.

Despite the horror and bloodshed, he says most Golan Druze reject the prospect of Israeli intervention in Syria. “Israel doesn’t have pure intentions in the Middle East in general, let alone for the Druze in Syria,” Ibrahim said. “Druze in the Galilee region of Israel and the Golan simply want Israel to stop assisting fighters from Nusra, because that group poses a direct threat to Syrian Druze.”

Ibrahim argues that Israel is attempting to build its economic presence in the Golan Heights as the world’s focus is fixed on the bloodshed in Syria. “The Israeli occupation authorities are working overtime," he explained, "to normalize the occupation of the Golan in the world’s eyes while they expand settlements and Israeli development projects.”

Though Israel claimed to have annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, the international community does not recognize that move and considers the territory occupied in contravention of international law. Like in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the Syrian territory are also considered illegal under international law.

Golan investments

A year ago, Israel announced plans to invest more than $5.5 million to “encourage local tourism” in Jewish-only settlements in Golan, as reported by the Arabic-language Arab48 website at the time.

Also in the summer of 2014, the Majdal Shams-based human rights group al-Marsad reported that Israel had invested more than $108 million in a plan to develop more than 30,000 dunams (7,400 acres) of the Golan’s agricultural land. “Given the historical and political context of this region, this proposed agricultural expansion will only benefit the Jewish settlers in the occupied Golan and further marginalize and economically disadvantage the indigenous Syrians in this region,” the group said in a press release.

More recently, a U.S.-Israeli firm with links advised by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney recently began exploratory oil drilling in the Golan.

Comments by some Israeli politicians seem to support local fears that Israel is using the chaos in Syria to tighten its grip on the Golan. Naftali Bennett, an Israeli parliamentarian from the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party, recently called on the world to recognize the Golan as Israeli territory.

An estimated 20,000 Jewish Israelis live in settlements in the Golan, but Bennett called on the government to increase that number to upwards of 100,000 settlers in the next five years. "Who do they want us to give the Golan to? To Assad? Today, it's clear that if we listened to the world, we would give up the Golan, and ISIS would be swimming in the Sea of Galilee,” he said.

While opposition to Israeli intervention is firm, Ibrahim says that choosing a side in the Syrian war has become increasingly difficult for Golan residents. “There is no doubt that fewer people support the revolution that started in 2011,” he explained. “This is not just true in the Golan, but also in Syria and the Middle East in general.”

“I personally notice that people have adopted a more religious perspective now â€" though not necessarily sectarian," Ibrahim added. "Druze flags have become common and support for Syrian Druze has become the key concern. This is very natural, because the bloodshed on Syrian streets is much closer to the lives of Syrian Druze now.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!