A wounded Syrian fighter was dragged from an ambulance and beaten to death by enraged members of Israel's Druze community in the Golan Heights on Monday, an incident that highlights Israel's struggle to contain the violent spillover from the increasingly complex war next door in Syria.
According to the Israeli police, the mob surrounded the ambulance, threw rocks, and violently attacked the medical vehicle near the Druze town of Hurfeish, resulting in the death of one patient and serious injuries to another. Two ambulance workers were also lightly wounded.
Speaking on Israel's Army Radio Brigadier-General Moti Almoz said that the wounded men and ambulance staff were attacked by a crowd of around 100 people and called the incident a "lynching."
Numbering around 140,000, Israel's Druze practice an offshoot of Shiite Islam. They mainly live in the north of the country in or near the Golan Heights, a territory effectively annexed by Israel from Syria in 1981.
While many members of the minority sect have refused Israeli citizenship and continue to see themselves as Syrian, most speak Hebrew. Many have served in the Israeli army, and the community is generally seen as loyal to the state. In recent weeks, however, tensions have risen dramatically due to differing interests in the conflict just across the border.
Earlier this month, 20 Druze villagers in northwest Syria were reportedly shot dead by al Nusra Front militants, an Islamist Syrian rebel group associated with al Qaeda.
The Druze community in Syria and beyond are longstanding loyalists of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and those inside Israel have increasingly been angered by Israel's medical support to rebel factions, which has allegedly included bringing fighters from hardline militant groups such as al Nusra Front across the border for treatment.
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Israel is vehemently opposed to Hezbollah, a Lebanese faction that has been active on the Syrian side of the Golan in support of the Assad regime.
Reflecting the mood of growing fear and anger among many Druze a report by Syrian state-media outlet praised the killers of the wounded fighters as "young heroic Syrians" who had "inflicted punishment on them for their participation in aggression on the mother homeland Syria and its people."
"We are loyal to our country and we are loyal to our brothers," said Amir Wahabi, a 38-year-old Druze from Daliyat al-Karmel, a village in northern Israel, told Reuters. "If… someone hurts the Druze in Syria, that person becomes my enemy. I am willing to die to protect my brothers there."
While Israel's government has said it will protect the Druze across the border from the ongoing fighting, it has so far stopped short of taking any practical action to help members of the community trapped in Hader, a village besieged by Sunni Islamist rebel factions for several days.
Monday night's attack on the ambulance is the second in 24 hours. Last week, members of the Druze community protested outside a secret medical facility in Israel used to treat Syrian fighters.
Commenting on the latest incident, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu called on Druze leaders to calm the tensions, and vowed to catch those behind the attack.
"This is a very grave incident. We will not permit anybody to take the law into their own hands, and we will not allow anyone to hamper Israeli soldiers in the course of their duty," Netanyahu said.
Israel has denied that al Nusra Front fighters are among those being treated in its hospitals.
The head of the Israeli Druze community, Sheikh Mowafak Tariq, echoed Netanyahu's remarks, calling the incident an act of "lawless people."
"This is not our way and we're in pain over what happened," he said.
Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon vowed there would be a "heavy-handed response" to further unrest.
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