JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Throughout Syria’s civil war, Israel has contended with bullets and mortars straying across its northern border. But now it faces a new spillover, with sectarian violence and regional loyalties threatening to drag it into the conflict.
After four years of keeping to the sidelines, Israel’s position is becoming more precarious, particularly as it relates to the Druze community, a threatened people inside Syria and a vocal one across the frontier.
The Druze are a religious group who live as minorities across much of the region, with the biggest communities in Syria and Lebanon.
In this patchwork, Israel effectively houses two Druze populations. It has around 110,000 Druze citizens who identify as Israelis, serve in the army and have risen to prominent positions in government. A further 20,000 Druze live on the annexed Golan Heights, land Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war.
The Syrian Druze, who are largely loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, are being drawn into the civil war. This in turn has raised fears for their fate among their brethren over the border in Israel. Some want Israel to intervene in a conflict that it is keen to keep out of.
Complicating matters yet further, some Druze in Israel and the Golan believe the country is helping their enemy - anti-Assad rebels. Israel regularly allows Syrian civilians and fighters into its territory for treatment at its hospitals.
The complex relationships between the Israeli Druze, the Golan Druze and the Druze in southern Syria - who are in many cases direct blood relations - is the thread pulling Israel closer into the Syrian crisis.
The latest cause for concern came on Monday, when Druze in northern Israel and the Golan separately attacked two Israeli military ambulances carrying wounded from Syria for treatment in Israeli hospitals.
In the Golan, one Syrian was killed by the Druze crowd, an attack that Israeli leaders described as a lynching.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon offered assurances on Tuesday that he had the situation under control. “There are many complex considerations, leave it to us to handle,” he said in a statement. “We know what to do to protect the Druze on the Golan while not complicating matters in Syria and our side.”
The two incidents on Monday showed how traditional sectarian loyalty transcends frontiers in a region that is being reshaped by new forces, said Professor Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies.
He said the Druze outcry also poses moral and operational dilemmas for Israel. “The Druze community which lives here contributes to Israel, has equal citizenship,” Rabi said. “But the Mideast challenges arrive at your door and you need to handle them with kid gloves. Israel must help but under no condition get entangled in Syria.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made comments on Tuesday that reflected the tightrope Israel is walking. He denounced the ambulance assaults while hailing what he described as Israel’s “alliance of brothers” with its Druze citizens.
“We will find those who carried out the lynching,” he said in a speech in Tel Aviv. “I call on the leaders of the Druze community ... to calm things down.”
Rabi said Israel should be part of a regional umbrella of countries, like Jordan, to help the Druze if they come under threat, but must not undertake a solo operation.
The religious leader of Israel’s Druze, Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, said a report on Channel 2 TV may have been the final straw for his community.
This showed a man being treated in an Israeli hospital who identified himself as a member of the Free Syria Army rebel group. The wounded man said he would do nothing to defend Druze against Islamist jihadi rebels, adding that Druze fighting for Assad had killed his friends and neighbors.
Tarif, who condemned the ambulance assaults, said on Israeli Army Radio that the man’s comments “should have raised alarm bells for everyone”.
Israel says it is playing a humanitarian role in treating wounded who come to its borders, and that it does not screen them for political or sectarian alliances.
For now, the Druze leaders are trying to defuse tension. On Tuesday, leading sheiks from the community gathered in Israel’s Galilee to denounce the ambulance attacks and call for calm.
Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Luke Baker, Jeffrey Heller and David Stamp