Golan Druze divided on Syrian uprising

AFP , Monday 18 Apr 2011

Golan's predominantly Druze population living under Israeli occupation has been split by the widespread unrest in Syria after Independence Day celebrations were replaced by a general strike

In the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, people keep a close eye on life in Syria, which they consider home, and political unrest there has left the local community both anxious and divided.

In recent weeks, the Druze town of Majdal Shams has been watching pro-reform demonstrators staging protests in cities across Syria, demanding more political freedom and an end to repressive emergency laws.

The unrest has split public opinion here, where most residents identify as Syrian and usually stage an annual celebration on Syrian Independence Day.

A few residents openly back the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, but others say they are afraid to express support too publicly, fearing for the safety of their relatives inside Syria.

And for some in Majdal Shams, the pro-reform protests are nothing more than a foreign plot, stirred up by outsiders in a bid to destabilise Syria.

Earlier this month, around 2,000 people demonstrated in support of Assad's regime in the Golan village of Buqata, carrying giant Syrian flags and portraits of the Syrian leader.

But on Saturday, a smaller group gathered in Majdal Shams to show solidarity with anti-regime demonstrators across the border.

Around 150 people rallied in the town's main square, some carrying Syrian flags and others holding banners reading "No to killing, no to the regime, no to oppression" and "The people want the liberation of the Golan."

Despite taking part in the demonstration, many protesters were reluctant to speak to the media, saying their signs and banners said all they would say.

But Shadi Nasrallah told AFP it was important for the Golan's Druze to participate in the uprising against Assad.

"We are here to support all the people in Syria who are asking for freedom and who oppose the Syrian dictator," he said. "We are part of Syrian society so we are all against the dictator."

There are about 18,000 Syrian nationals, most of them Druze, in the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war and unilaterally annexed in 1981.

Another protester, 25-year-old lawyer and blogger Shefa Abu Jabal, said the demonstration was intended as a "supportive step by the people of the Golan in solidarity with the revolution of the Syrian people."

Abu Jabal was more cautious about expressing opposition to Assad's regime, saying the protests in the Golan and Syria were mainly seeking reform.

"From the beginning, the revolution has called for reforms and freedom, no one demanded the fall of the regime," he said.

But he acknowledged that the goals of the uprising might not be possible without Assad's removal from office.

"I want freedom for the Syrians, and if the fall of the regime is the price or the way, then I am for it."

As he spoke, a small pro-Assad protest was being staged nearby, which eventually spilled over into a scuffle between some of the younger participants in both demonstrations.

"Most of what is happening in Syria is a conspiracy against Syria, the resistance, the approach of the leadership and President Bashar Assad, said Imad Abu Maraei.

But Abu Jamal said there were many people in the Golan who were angered by the often deadly response of Syrian security forces to protests in the country.

"There are people here who are against the regime, but there are also people who are against what is happening there who won't say it," he told AFP.

For people in the Golan, the political unrest across the border has already had a tangible effect.

This year's annual Syrian Independence Day celebration, scheduled for 17 April , was cancelled, and anti-regime Druze in the area instead held a general strike in support of protesters across the border.


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