- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

BUKATA, Golan Heights

Druse in the Israeli-held Golan Heights have been turning out in thousands in shows of support for Syria’s president as he faces anti-government protests.

But the pro-reform wave stirs mixed feelings for the 20,000 Druse, who never stopped seeing themselves as Syrian but have grown up used to freedoms under Israeli rule.

Few members of the Druse, members of a tight-knit community who belong to a secretive offshoot of Islam, will speak out against Syrian President Bashar Assad - possibly fearing for family members on the other side of the border.

The community has gone out of its way to show public support. A rally in the Golan recently drew thousands of Assad backers to the village of Majdal Shams, where the main square is dominated by a sculpture featuring Sultan Pasha Atrash, a legendary Druse warrior who led Syria’s battle for independence from France and other powers in the last century.

There have been no protests backing Mr. Assad’s opponents.

Still, even if residents hold emotional and family ties to Syria and no love for Israeli occupation, there’s little sign of eagerness to live under Mr. Assad’s regime, 43 years after Israel seized the strategic Golan from Syria.

One prominent figure in the Golan community acknowledged that reverting to authoritarian Syrian rule is problematic. Many, he said, like their lifestyle under Israeli rule.

Yet “they still feel a sense of belonging to Syria,” he said. Like many residents, he spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing trouble with authorities.

The strategic plateau, which overlooks northern Israel, has remained quiet in an otherwise volatile region since the 1973 Mideast war. Its pleasant weather, rugged scenery, ski resort, farms and wineries make it a popular tourist destination for Israelis.

The Druse have had peaceful and profitable interactions with Israelis. They speak Hebrew and sell Israeli goods in their stores. The overwhelming majority of Golan Druse were born after the Israeli takeover, and fellow Druse in Israel proper are so well integrated that - unlike most of Israel’s Arab minority - they often serve in the Israeli army.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War, annexing it 14 years later in a move that has never been internationally recognized. Syria demands the Golan’s return as part of any peace agreement, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is unwilling to go that far.

In public, at least, the community has rallied behind Mr. Assad, whose regime has been shaken by weeks of unprecedented anti-government protests. Human rights groups say more than 100 people have been killed in a government crackdown.

Mr. Assad’s supporters here insist the reports of unrest in Syria and a brutal government crackdown are overblown.

“What we are hearing [from people in Syria] is everything is as usual there, nothing serious is going on,” said Ata Farkhat, a 39-year-old reporter from the Golan who works for state-run Syrian TV and Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper.

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