- 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.

He said he spent three years in an Israeli prison over his ties with Syria.

A large stone replica of Syria’s coat of arms - a hawk holding a shield of the national flag - dominates the outer wall of Mr. Farkat’s home in Bukata. A book by Mr. Assad’s predecessor and father, Hafez Assad, sits in the bookcase. A photo of the younger Assad hangs on the wall.

Some here will gingerly address Syria’s problems - while carefully attributing them to the people who surround Mr. Assad and not the Syrian leader himself. They’ll even speak favorably of reform, albeit only under Mr. Assad’s rule.

Not all downplay the repressiveness of one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

“I’m in favor of democracy,” said one 30-year-old man. “I can say here, ‘Bibi Netanyahu is no good.’ Can I say that about Assad?”

But opinions like this, stated openly, are fairly rare.

Israeli listening stations capping local mountaintops are stark reminder that this plateau, verdant and bursting with flowers in the springtime, has been occupied territory for nearly 44 years. The Syrian town of Quneitra is easily visible from a road leading to the Golan Druse communities on the foothills of Mount Hermon.

Some previous Israeli governments have been willing in principle to cede the Golan to Syria in exchange for normalized relations and control of a vital water source, but several rounds of talks have failed to clinch a deal - whether over details or cold feet on either side. The most recent round of talks broke down in late 2008.

Mr. Netanyahu, who took power the following year, has said he is ready to talk peace with Syria, but opposes a full withdrawal from the Golan. He has much popular support for that among Israel’s Jewish majority, which views the plateau as a bulwark against potential Syrian aggression.

Unlike the far more numerous Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Druse Arabs of the Golan have had peaceful relations with Israeli authorities and the 18,000 Jewish settlers who also live on the plateau.

The good ties have prompted small Israeli concessions.

Since 1988, Druse clerics have been allowed to make religious pilgrimages to Syria. Hundreds of Druse students are allowed to attend college in Damascus on the Syrian government’s tab.

For the past seven years, Israel has allowed the Druse to export apples to Syria. This year, a record 12,000 tons went out, according to Said Farkhat, who coordinates the transfers from eight apple-packing operations on the Golan.

In another concession, brides and grooms living on opposite sides of the border are allowed to marry. Druse brides, however, are not permitted to visit families back home.

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