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Israel Vows to Prevent Massacre of Syrian Druze After Islamist Rebels Surround Village Near Golan Heights

The Israeli government moved after Israeli Druze, who serve in the country's army, expressed alarm about the threat to their coreligionists in Syria.
June 17, 2015, 3:40pm
Photo by Atef Safadi/EPA

Syrian rebels have surrounded a Druze village close to the Israeli side of the Golan Heights strategic ceasefire line Wednesday, prompting the Israeli government to offer protection to refugees who cross into the territory it occupies and vow to prevent a massacre at the border.

The insurgents, among them Islamist fighters, surrounded the village of Hader following heavy fighting with pro-government forces in the region that left at least seven rebels and 10 regime soldiers dead, British-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Hader is now totally surrounded by rebels, who just took a strategic hilltop north of the village," SOHR director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. "[Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's] regime has not sent reinforcements yet, but the Druze villagers are standing with the government."

The latest rebel advance comes after three months of clashes, during which time rebels have seized entire villages, military bases and a border crossing area with Jordan. It also follows last week's shootout between al Qaeda offshoot, Nusra Front, and pro-Assad forces in northwestern Idlib province, which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Druze, SOHR said.

Related: At Least 20 Syrians Massacred by Al Nusra Front In Shootout

Israel said it was bracing for an influx of Druze refugees when rebel forces attempt to enter Hader.

"The reality in the Golan Heights, where internal fighting is near the border with Israel, is of great concern to us, including the possibility we might have to deal with refugees from Syria arriving at the border," Israel's military Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot reportedly told a parliamentary committee.

"We will take measures to prevent a situation where refugees are massacred," he was quoted as saying, according to AFP. "Our action would be humanitarian."

The Israeli army on Tuesday limited border access to the Israeli-occupied Golan, which has a large Druze population, after declaring it a closed military zone. Only residents were able to move in and out of the zone, which was a measure not to prevent refugees from entering, but to keep some of the estimated 20,000 Druze living in Israeli-held Golan from trying to cross over to Syrian to help fellow members of the minority group.

The Druze are a small, secretive ethno-religious minority with roots in Islam who are concentrated in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. In Syria, they dominate the southern province of Sweida, but also populate villages in other areas like Idlib and in the eastern Golan. Officials say the Druze comprised roughly 3 percent of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million, while some 110,000 Druze currently reside in northern Israel and an estimated 200,000 in Lebanon.

Watch the VICE News documentary, "The War Next Door."

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