Syria fighting shatters unity of Druse in Golan

Civil war in neighboring Syria is tearing apart the once tight-knit Druse community on the Golan Heights. Angry arguments between supporters and foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad have pitted husbands against wives, driven a wedge between neighbors and even threated to ruin an upcoming wedding.

The two camps scrawl tit-for-tat graffiti on walls and run rival news websites. At a brawl last month, regime supporters pelted their rivals with eggs, shoes and rocks, prompting religious leaders to declare a ban on political demonstrations in the Golan's four Druse villages.

"We shout at each other, when before, we used to say hello," lamented Assad supporter Ghandi Kahlouni, a 53-year-old pharmacist.

The growing divisions between those backing Assad and those sympathizing with Syrian rebels are surprising, considering the tight weave of the 22,000-strong Druse community on the Golan, a fenced-off plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981.

Since the capture by Israel, most of the Golan Druse — followers of a secretive offshoot of Islam — have continued to identify themselves as Syrian, even though many have never been to Syria, and in public at least they all backed Assad's regime as their one-day savior from Israeli rule.

However, some began questioning the Syrian dictator's actions as the regime violently cracked down on opponents. Activists estimate some 20,000 people have been killed in the past 18 months of fighting that has descended into civil war.

Others support the regime, fearing for the future of their sect in a rebellion lead by orthodox Muslims and worried Syria will collapse into chaos.

It's not clear how many residents now support the rebels, but backing for Assad has clearly eroded. Even some of the most fervent regime supporters are critical of Assad's rule.

Last month, simmering tensions erupted into violence.

It began when several dozen rebel supporters demonstrated in Majdal Shams, the largest Druse village on the Golan. Kahlouni, the pharmacist, said demonstrators hurled insults at the Syrian leader. Regime supporters struck back with eggs, rocks and shoes, said Mayada Abu Jabal, a 39-year-old physiotherapist.

Following the brawl, Druse leaders threatened to banish anyone showing public support for either side, fearing more serious violence, said Majdal Shams Mayor Dolan Abu Saleh. Religious authorities wouldn't comment. The mayor said two people were briefly expelled.

The divisions even threaten to disrupt an upcoming wedding in Majdal Shams later this month.

Some 2,000 people are expected to attend, but members of the Abu Jabal clan fear the bride's father may refuse to come. Many in the large clan support the rebels. The bride's immediate family supports Assad's regime.

The groom's sister, Shefa Abu Jabal, said tensions were so bad that the couple canceled the traditional pre-wedding visit of the groom's relatives to the bride's family, fearing it would end in an argument.

"We aren't sure if he'll come for his daughter's sake," Shefa Abu Jabal said of the father of the bride, who was not available for comment.

Now, talk of politics is banned in the house. Instead, the groom's mother busied herself with baking date-stuffed semolina wedding treats.

But the political battle continues, fought with graffiti scribbled on the walls of cinderblock homes spread over several hills.

"Bashar Assad" was scrawled on a concrete wall. The Arabic word for "may he fall" was smeared over, converting the anti-regime chant into a defiant fist-pump for the Syrian leader.

"God, Bashar and Syria, only" — a chant of pro-Assad supporters, was sprayed nearby. Assad's name was wiped off by anti-regime activists.

Online, the "Golan Times" cheers on the regime with articles like "Opposition member thinks of returning to Syria to get free medical treatment." On the website "Jawlan" — the Arabic name for the Golan — there's an essay on the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan.

The Druse are spread across Israel, Lebanon and Syria. They survived in a turbulent region by showing allegiance to their country of residence, banning marriage outside the faith and shunning conversions.

Some 100,000 Druse in Israel are loyal to the Jewish state, while Lebanese Druse are important players in their country's politics. In Syria, Druse make up a tiny minority of some 3 percent in a country of 22 million and are marginal to the bloody power struggle there.

Only one time before was there such bitterness among the Golan Druse, when a minority of residents supported Israel's annexation of the territory in 1981, said Salim Brake, a Golan resident and political analyst. They were beaten by other residents, and the controversy ended with the overwhelming majority deciding not to recognize Israel's annexation, Brake said.

Now, not discussing politics appears to be the only way to still tensions.

Apple farmer Yousef Shams, 61, described rebel supporters as "donkeys." His pro-rebel relatives say they don't like to talk politics with him, hoping to preserve family relations.

Rebel supporter Ayman Abu Jabal said he used to argue with his wife Sana, until she shifted allegiances to his side.

People tend to socialize in their own groups. On a recent night, Abu Jabal and his wife stretched out in an apple orchard beside Majdal Shams. They and their buddies, also rebel supporters, chatted, spoke by Skype to activists in Syria, snacked on nuts, smoked water pipes and made jokes about regime supporters.

Still, there's a somber mood in Majdal Shams.

Both sides say they feel relations are irreparably broken. Regime supporter Kahlouni said it was best to remain quiet.

"We aren't even the size of a neighborhood in Damascus," he said, referring to the Golan's Arab residents. "Let the days judge who is right."