Assad harvests support from Druze in Israel - with apples

The Syrian Druze living under Israeli control in the Golan Heights are loyal to President Assad because they consider him an economic lifeline and a protector of minority rights.

Baz Ratner/Reuters/File
A woman from the Druze community uses binoculars to watch fighting between forces loyal to the Syrian regime and rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from a hilltop overlooking Syrian villages in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights June 10, 2013.

Every fall, tractors in this Druze village in the Golan Heights ferry 55,000 tons of golden apples from orchards abutting Israel’s ceasefire line with Syria to nearby warehouses, where they wait to be shipped down to central Israeli markets or over the border to Syria. 

These orchards, cordoned off from Israeli minefields by barbed wire, are an economic mainstay for some 25,000 Syrians living here under Israeli control since 1967 and an important link back home to Syria.

In the spring, despite a raging civil war that almost led to a closure of the supply routes through the Quneitra border crossing, Syria still managed to import 18,000 tons of surplus Golan apples at a premium, making up for weak prices on the saturated Israeli market.

With Israel and Syria technically still in a state of war dating back to Israel's founding in 1948, the International Committee of the Red Cross coordinates the export between the Golan and Syria, which began in 2005. The trade benefits both parties, with the farmers receiving a new market for their apples and President Bashar al-Assad winning ongoing loyalty from a community that sits on a regional geopolitical fault line.

The apple shipment earlier this year "gave the feeling that the situation in Syria is good – that the regime is still strong and in control," says Ata Farhat, a Druze journalist from Buqata who reports for the Syrian state television news. "It was very significant for the people – for them, the regime is helping support them make a living."

Assad the protector

Said Farhat, a Buqata apple farmer who coordinates the export shipments among the Golan Druze, says that he wants to prepare another shipment this year, even though the latest harvest is weak. The export will be symbolic – maybe 1,000 tons – but it will preserve commercial ties between the Golan Druze and Syria.  

"We are connected to our land…. We have a dream of returning to Syrian rule," he says. However, Mr. Fahat pauses when asked for his thoughts on returning to a Sunni-led Syria. "The Sunnis never brought democracy, in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia. They destroyed Lebanon. We hope Assad stays."

The Druze of the Golan Heights have permanent residency status in Israel – which formally annexed the territory in 1981 – and can request citizenship. They get social welfare benefits from Israel and their produce is marketed through Israeli distributors, but many say their hearts remain tied to Syria and hope that the Golan Heights will one day be restored to Syrian sovereignty.

And while they have ties to Druze communities inside Israel that send soldiers to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, they consider Syria’s regime, dominated by members of the Alawite minority, a protector of all of Syria’s minorities. 

"They have a common interests with the [Assad] administration," says Salman Farkhir Aldeen, a human rights activist from the Druze village of Majdal Shams who is part of a vocal minority that opposes the regime crackdown. "They don’t care about democracy or human rights. They consider Assad as a shield."

As this year's harvest season gets underway, fears of a regional war are on the rise.

"We fear a US attack will cause a third world war,’’ says Farhat, the apple farmer. "We support progress and reform for Syria, but not the way [the rebels] want to do it. The opposition has gathered up all the terrorists in the world, and gets money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The goal is not to topple Assad but to destroy Syria and divide it."

Surrounded by war

When the US seemed poised to strike Syria earlier this month, residents here stocked up on food while the Israeli army beefed up its presence in and around their villages. The concern about a potential flare up has eased, but not entirely dissipated.

While Mahdi Abu Awad, the owner of apple orchards and a restaurant near the main entrance to the town, serves up Middle Eastern barbecue to Israeli tourists, his son studies medicine in Damascus thanks to subsidies from the Syrian government. Asked if he feared for his son’s safety, he shrugged, saying that explosions from the fighting are no further away from his son's Damascus neighborhood than from Buqata.   

In recent weeks, Buqata residents say the Israeli military has stepped up its patrols and exercises, including tank maneuvers nearby.

"We live in the middle. The missiles will go over our heads’’ says Samih Abu Awad, a café owner who displays a 50 Syrian dinar note just under his Israeli-tax authority business certificate.  

The café owner says friends joke on Facebook about President Barack Obama’s hesitancy to attack Syria. When a friend at the café makes a rare allegation against the Syrian president for using chemical weapons, Mr. Awad comes to the Syrian leader’s defense, calling him a "good person who has done good for Syria. He studied in Europe. He’s not from the street."

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