National Security

Israel Considering Creation of ‘Safe Zone’ in Syria for Threatened Druze Sect

Would provide humanitarian aid, protection by guns on Israeli side of the border

Members of Israel's Druze minority look at the the fighting between between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels in the Druze village of Khader in Syria, from the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Members of Israel's Druze minority look at the the fighting between between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels in the Druze village of Khader in Syria, from the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, Tuesday, June 16, 2015 / AP

JERUSALEM—Israel is considering the creation of a "safe zone" on the Syrian side of the Golan border where members of the threatened Druze sect could shelter under the protection of guns on the Israeli side of the border and receive humanitarian aid, according to Israeli news site Walla.

Apparent confirmation came from Israeli chief of staff Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tuesday that the army will prevent any attempt to massacre refugees reaching the border.

Israel has thus far managed to avoid being sucked into the turmoil in Syria, but its own Druze population, numbering some 130,000, makes it particularly sensitive to the plight of the sect, an offshoot of Islam. Eisenkot said the army would not permit refugees to cross the border into Israel.

Israel has been providing medical aid on an ad hoc basis to Syrian civilians and fighters who reach the border where they are treated in a field hospital and sometimes transported to hospitals inside Israel. It has also supplied blankets and other humanitarian supplies to villagers who reach the border fence. But the "safe zone," if created, would be a substantial physical entity. According to the Walla site, Israeli officials have been discussing the possibility with the United Nations, the International Red Cross, and several countries.

Israeli Druze serve in the army, unlike Israeli Arabs, and are prominent in the border police. Members of the sect, who are scattered through the Middle East, are known for being loyal to the government of whichever country they reside in. Syrian Druze have kept out of the civil war ravaging the country for the past four years and enjoyed the protection of the Syrian army. The army, however, has now been pushed out of the main Druze concentration on Mount Druze, where some 600,000 members of the sect reside. The area is just north of the Jordanian border and about 40 miles from the Golan.

Fighters from the jihadist al-Nusra Front have now reached the enclave and preachers have reportedly entered some Druze villages and attempted to persuade residents to adopt the "true" Islam. There have not yet been any clashes in the area, but in northern Syria last week, 20 Druze were killed in a village by al-Nusra fighters. In an unusual move, the al-Nusra leadership issued an apology and said those responsible will be tried.

However, fighters from the more radical Islamic Front are now not far from Mount Druze. Israeli spokesmen have ruled out any direct involvement in the Mount Druze area but a military analyst on Israel’s Channel Two on Tuesday said that if the situation there deteriorates it would be hard for Israel to stay aloof.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff making a farewell visit to Israel, to pass on a request to boost American aid to the Syrian Druze community. Israeli Druze have raised money for their brethren in Syria, including contributions from Israeli Jews.

In a letter to Netanyahu, an Israeli Druze leader Atta Farhat said that non-involvement in Syria may result in a Druze holocaust "under our very noses."

Hundreds of Israeli Druze went to the Golan border on Tuesday to scan a Druze village two miles inside Syria around which mortar shells could be seen exploding.