MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights (Reuters) - Gathered at a hilltop in the Israeli-held Golan Heights, a group of Druze sheikhs look through binoculars at the Syrian village of Hader, surrounded by rebels. They fear their brethren are in imminent danger.
The Druze in the area say that the Nusra Front, Syria’s al Qaeda branch, have gained control of the hilltops around the village leaving open only a southern gateway facing the Israeli-held territory and security fence.
“We have come to see what Nusra are doing to our relatives, they are holed up in their homes, surrounded by terrorists,” said one of the five young sheikhs in traditional black garb and a white skull cap. He asked not to be identified.
Last week Nusra Front killed at least 20 Druze villagers in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, raising concern for the minority as insurgents, including Sunni Islamists, gain ground against President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels are surrounding Hader but the Southern Front rebel alliance, behind the offensive against Assad’s forces in the area this week, said they are not Nusra fighters.
The Southern Front has accused the Syrian government of manipulating sectarian fear among the Druze to boost its support, and has issued statements seeking to reassure the minority.
Issam al-Rayyes, the Southern Front spokesman, said positions occupied by the rebels had been shelled by forces within Hader on Friday.
“PREPARING FOR BATTLE”
Spread between Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, the Druze are viewed as heretics by al Qaeda and Islamic State because of their religion, an offshoot of Islam incorporating elements of other faiths. Many Syrian Druze have fought for Assad against the rebels.
A few dozen of Hader’s houses are visible from across the frontier and the Syrian flag, a symbol of loyalty to Assad, is painted on a water tower. A handful of people could be seen for a moment out in the street.
The explosions and gunfire near Hader this week thundered across to Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Israeli-held Golan, four km (2.5 miles) away.
Many here have family in Hader. Salman, 54, said he has been speaking with his cousin there daily.
“We are worried that, God forbid, those fanatical terrorists will enter the village and that there will be a massacre,” said Salman who asked not to give his full name.
Majdal Shams is home to about 10,000 Druze. In the shops and restaurants that line its steep, narrow streets people talk about Hader. Split between supporters of Assad and those who want him gone, villagers say they are united in concern for their kin.
Nabi Halabi, 45, says he is careful about phoning his Hader relatives because he is known as an Assad opponent and fears the president’s forces will punish his family. Instead he relies on social networks for communication. “I have been checking Facebook every hour to see what’s happening there,” Halabi said.
“They said they are under siege, not sleeping, frightened and are worrying how to bring in food. They have received calming messages they will not be harmed, but they don’t believe Nusra. They are preparing for battle.”
Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It gave the Druze there, who number about 20,000, the option of citizenship. Most rejected it.
Druze inside Israel number about 110,000, some have risen high in Israel’s political and military and have called for intervention as Islamist fighters make gains in Syria, including the Druze heartland of Sweida, near Jordan and Israel.
Israel’s army chief, Gadi Eizenkot, told parliament on Tuesday that preparations were under way to respond to any massing of refugees on the Golan, but he did not elaborate. [ID: L5N0Z245K]
On the hilltop overlooking Hader one of the sheiks said Israel should keep out. “We don’t care about Israel or anyone else, if the Druze there are in danger, we will tear down the fence and go in to help.”
Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Editing by Ori Lewis and Dominic Evans