Israel made a strategic decision over the weekend that its “covenant of blood” with the Druze community is more important than its strategic moral and humanitarian support for the groups of rebels who are working to drive the Syrian army away from the Golan Heights. As a result, Israel warned in public that it would target the anti-Assad rebels if they were to harm members of the Druze community in the Golan, in spite of the fact that the Druze support Bashar Assad’s regime and have encouraged him to take over the Israel border area.
Israel heaved a sigh of relief, therefore, when the Syrian army succeeded not only in driving the rebels away from the Hader area but also in regaining control of four of its posts that had been conquered by the rebels. Had the crisis ended differently, it could have led to a rift between the State of Israel and members of the Druze community, not only in the Golan but in Israel too.
Israel had been preparing for the possibility of such a crisis for a while, in light of the intensive fighting between rebels and Syrian forces over the control of the Golan area. Nevertheless, the car bomb smuggled by the rebels into Hader over the weekend—which marked the beginning of their attack on posts around the village—caught Israel by surprise. Although it was expected that the rebels would invade Hader on their way to take over the Beit Jann area, Israel misread the map.
Israel has a clear interest in having no Syrian presence in the area, as that would allow free movement of Hezbollah forces from southern Lebanon to the northern Golan Heights. Hezbollah forces have already been active in the areas in the past, trying to gain a foothold in the Golan Heights and provoking Israel. Freed prisoner Samir Kuntar, who was assassinated in a Damascus suburb in late 2015, used to operate Druze terrorist cells in the area against Israel.
This isn’t the first time the IDF comes to the rescue of the Druze on the other side of the fence. In June, 2015, the IDF prevented a pogrom in Hader when rebel forces, led by members of the al-Nusra Front, tried to infiltrate the village and avenge an attack carried out by a Druze lynch mob from the Golan Heights on two injured Syrians who were being transferred to Israel in a military ambulance for medical care. At the time, Israel threatened and curbed the rebels, but did not make a public announcement about it.
The Israeli government was likely to make a public commitment to defend the Druze in the Syrian Golan to stop the Israeli Druze from taking practical steps against the government. The first step, bursting through the border fence between Israel and Syria, was eventually curbed by the IDF.
From the very first day of the civil war in Syria, Israel has respected the Druze community’s scared principle, “hafiz al-ikhwan” (being your brother's keeper). The members of this small community, which includes about a million and a half people around the world, are committed to protecting each other, regardless of where they are and of their political loyalty.
Israel tried to protect the Druze even when the IDF was in Lebanon. When the civil war in Syria broke out, then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz gave leaders of the Druze community his word in a close meeting that Israel would protect the interests of the community members in Syria, and Israel did help the Druze in Jabal al-Druze and in the Golan Heights.
Friday’s military incident may have ended, but it left behind a bitter taste. Not only is Israel publicly giving up its security interests in the Golan, but its Druze residents are accusing the state of cooperating with radical Islam. The Middle East, however, keeps producing uncertain situations on a daily basis with a potential for a regional military crisis, forcing the army to be constantly alert and the cabinet to be fully attentive to what is taking place around us.