June 30, 2015 | NOW Lebanon

Not Fooling Anyone

The agitation in the Druze community in Israel over the situation of their coreligionists in Syria turned bloody on Monday. A Druze mob near Majdal Shams attacked a military ambulance carrying wounded Syrians for treatment in Israel, killing one of them and critically injuring another, while also lightly injuring two Israeli soldiers. The deadly attack followed another attempted assault earlier in the day in the town of Hurfeish in the Galilee.

This was no spontaneous outburst of an angry community. It was, rather, a premeditated, orchestrated campaign designed to use the Druze to embroil Israel in Syria. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is under no illusions. “Behind the scenes, Hezbollah and the Assad regime,” veteran journalist Ron Ben-Yishai wrote last Thursday, “through the Syrian Druze, are trying to play on Israel’s commitment to the loyal Druze community in order to get the IDF to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.” Ben-Yishai's information most likely came from the IDF, as part of its effort to contain and counter what was clearly a targeted information campaign.

Israeli intelligence, Ben-Yishai added, had identified a stream of disinformation about the situation in Quneitra and Suweida that originated in Syria, and which was disseminated to Israel’s Druze through social networks and mobile phones. 

Following the deadly attack on the IDF ambulance near Majdal Shams on Monday, Druze communal leaders fingered Lebanese killer Samir Kuntar as being behind the incitement among the Druze of the Golan, especially in the Majdal Shams region. The Israelis have long disclosed that Kuntar was acting on behalf of Hezbollah among the Druze of the Golan and Suweida, facilitating the group’s reach in the area.

Whether or not Kuntar was the liaison on the ground, it was another Lebanese Druze ally of Hezbollah, Wiam Wahhab, who publicly gave the command to launch the assault that would target the IDF ambulances. His participation means there is a straight line between the lynching and Assad/Hezbollah. Several days before the attacks, Wahhab went on a local talk show and urged Druze everywhere to come to the aid of their Syrian brothers. Then he made a specific call on the Druze “in the Golan and in Palestine,” to “prevent the transfer of the wounded (into Israel), to cut off roads, even if they have to clash with the Israeli police which is transferring the wounded.”

“It is not permissible,” he added, addressing the Druze in Israel, “for those who are killing your brothers in Syria to be transferred for treatment in occupied Palestine.” Immediately following the incident, Assad’s media praised the attack and claimed that the wounded Syrians onboard were members of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Wahhab’s remarks make plain that the target of the information campaign was the Druze of northern Israel. What were Assad and Hezbollah looking to achieve? When the campaign was launched, the Syrian rebel factions were pushing to clear out the last foothold for Hezbollah and the regime in the northern Quneitra district. The location is very sensitive. On the one hand, it opens a road into Damascus eastward. On the other hand, it represents the last territorial buffer for Hezbollah near the southeastern Lebanese border. Impeding the rebel drive is a principal objective for Assad and Hezbollah. 

As regime and allied forces struggle to hold positions in southern Syria, one way to disrupt rebel advances is to do it by proxy. Maybe, as Ben-Yishai noted, possibly channeling military sources, Assad and Hezbollah hoped to generate enough domestic pressure to get the IDF to intervene and halt the rebel offensive under the pretext of “saving the Syrian Druze.” But also, by telling Israeli Druze that their government was working with Jabhat al-Nusra, which was about to massacre their cousins across the border, and by agitating them to attack ambulances treating the wounded, Assad and Hezbollah sought to poison the status quo at the border between Israel and the rebel factions.

The Israelis are familiar with this tactic from their experience in Lebanon. In 1981, for instance, Bashir Gemayel maneuvered in Zahle to draw the Israelis into direct intervention on his behalf. With Gemayel, one could at least make a case that he and the Israelis shared the same enemies. Whereas the campaign to draw an Israeli intervention to stop the rebel advance in Quneitra actually serves the opposite purpose, as it is aimed at protecting Assad and Hezbollah, on the backs of the Druze. In other words, not only is the information campaign about an imminent massacre of the Druze false, its ultimate purpose runs counter to Israel’s interest.

For this reason, Ben-Yishai notably began his article by listing recent Hezbollah-led operations against Israel that were launched from these Druze hamlets on the Golan through the cells that the group had cultivated there. Given the Iranian and Hezbollah interest in establishing an infrastructure in the area from which to launch operations against Israel, the latter’s interest is to deny Tehran a foothold there, not to abet it. IDF Brig. Gen. Imad Fares, himself a Druze, put the matter to rest: “Intervention with an Israeli stamp of approval is unacceptable, will not happen, and there is no mutual interest.”

The Assad regime's information campaign was especially malignant because of the good relationship between Israel and its loyal Druze citizens. The Israeli government and military had to handle the matter with great care, which they did. They absorbed the initial outcry. They then held briefings to reassure the communal leadership and corrected the false information about a looming massacre of the Druze. All the while, they took to the media to counter the disinformation, highlighting that this was a concerted effort by Israel’s enemies. In addition, the government has taken an uncompromising position on mob violence. 

Assad and Hezbollah's operation was designed to employ Israel in Syria on their behalf. The Israelis are not fooled. They are more than content to let Assad’s chestnuts in southern Syria continue to burn on an open fire.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


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