For the first time, Israel will permit 300 Druze citizens of the State to visit sites in Syria related to the Druze religion. Until now, only residents of four villages in the north of the Golan Heights – Mas'ade, Majdal Shams, Buq'ata and Ein Kanieh – have been permitted to enter Syria, with confirmation from the Syrian authorities and with Red Cross mediation.
Leaders of the Druze communities recently approached Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), requesting special permission for Druze religionists to enter Syria, since it is forbidden to Israelis to visit states which have no diplomatic ties with Israel or which constitute a threat.
In the past, in certain cases Israel has permitted brides to pass between the Golan Heights and Syria, the transfer of Golan apples to Syria, and some students to study at Damascus universities. Permits have been issued only after careful security checks, to ascertain that all passage is essential and does not constitute a security threat.
The Interior Ministry said the first group is expected to cross by next week with a permit to remain in Damascus and its environs for one week. The crossing will take place at King Hussein Bridge near Bet Shean, and the pilgrims will travel through Jordan to Syria.
The ministry said it considers it important to enable Israeli citizens to undertake visits whose purpose is religious, which is why Yishai agreed to allow hundreds of Druze to visit Syria within a short time. In the future, the ministry said, other cases will be examined.
'Major revolution for Israeli Druze'
Said Neboani, the Interior Ministry's population administration director for the north, said that there are currently some 750,000 Druze in Syria who have family members in Israel. Some 120,000 Druze live in Israel, mainly on Mount Carmel and the western Galilee. Most have long since lost their connection with their relatives in Syria.
"We're talking about a major revolution for the Druze population in Israel, who can visit family members as well as make a pilgrimage," he said. "The hope is that the 300 will grow to 700 and then 1,000. Maybe we can get permission also for women."
Sheikh Kamal Salame, a resident of Hurfeish, is among those who will visit Syria next week.
"This is a historic decision which enables an orderly group of Druze in Israel to go to Syria," he said. "We are very excited. This is a visit of fraternity, coexistence, reconciliation and peace with our brothers who live in Syria. There is no politics here, just unification with our families which has been given a seal of approval from Israel. We hope to see other such events in the future. All my family are excited, not just me, and some of the group will see relatives whom they haven't seen for almost 60 years."
Also Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak authorized a 14-year-old girl from Buq'ata to go to Syria for eye surgery. This was also a special case, because Israeli citizens are not usually permitted to go to Syria even for medical reasons.
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