MAJDAL SHAMS: To the sounds of chanting, fireworks and drum beats, hundreds of Druze residents of Majdal Shams, an Israeli-controlled town in the Golan Heights, took to the streets yesterday (Monday) afternoon to declare their support for family members in Syria - and for the Assad regime.
"We are with our people, with our community in Syria. We trust our Syrian army," the crowds shouted, surrounded by a sea of rainbow-coloured Druze flags. In the middle of the town's central roundabout, crowds paraded around a large portrait of Bashar al-Assad. The Druze in Israel and the Golan Heights, who number about 140,000, find themselves in a predicament that the Syrian civil war has only exacerbated.
Traditionally, the Druze, followers of a highly secretive faith derived from Islam and incorporating elements of mysticism and Greek philosophy, have pledged allegiance to whichever political power they find themselves governed by. In Syria, there are about 700,000, alongside communities in Lebanon and Jordan.
Those in the Golan Heights mostly identify themselves as Syrian, but in Israel proper they actively see themselves as Israeli. Many serve in the Israeli army.
Yet both groups are united in their fears for relatives in Syria, following the defeats of regime troops in the south. Druze villages have been exposed to attacks from Isil and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra rebels. Last week, more than 20 Druze were killed by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in Idlib province.
"The situation is really hard on all of us," says Rima Romia, a woman in her fifties who was born in Damascus and moved to the Golan Heights. "I feel like there is a fire inside me. I wish they could open the border so we could cross to Syria in support of our people."
Some express their feelings even more aggressively. "We want to kill Daesh [Isil] and Jabhat al-Nusra", said Nader, 30, a farmer from Majdal Shams.
According to an elderly woman throwing rice in support of the demonstrators yesterday, Druze families in Syria have taken matters into their own hands, forming guards to protect their villages.
But Hassan Safadi, a vet from Majdal Shams, said the Druze in Syria were divided. At least two militia forces have been set up: one independent group, Shiu Al Karam [Men of Dignity], and another, Dara Watan [Protectors of the Land], through which young Druze men sign up for Assad's army.
The Druze on the Israeli side of the border are also divided. Some are calling on the government to provide humanitarian and military aid and have asked that the Syrian Druze be given a safe haven. In recent days, Israeli Druze leaders have met the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other ministers.
Ayoub Kara, the Israeli deputy minister for regional affairs and the most senior Druze member of the government, said that in the past two weeks, the Druze community had sent 10 million shekels (pounds 1,676,000) to Syria, but that this was "not enough to make a military".
But while some Israeli Druze are calling for military intervention, the Druze of the Golan Heights protest at such notions. "The Druze people have always been a part of the Arab nation, regardless of what's happening now," said Mr Safadi. "It's not the Israelis' war."
Even the support of Assad is a contentious issue in Majdal Shams, with pro and anti-Assad demonstrations taking place on an almost weekly basis.
The one issue that unites the Druze is also the community's greatest fear: what will happen should their family members come under attack? "I'm a peaceful person," said Mr Safadi. "But if Isil attack my people, I will go and fight them."