9 more Druze-Israelis arrested in ambulance attacks


Nine more Druze-Israelis were arrested in connection with attacks on two ambulances carrying wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals.

The arrests reported on Tuesday by the Hebrew-language news website Walla bring the total number of arrests in the attacks last month to 21. One Syrian died in the attacks.

Police imposed a gag order on the investigation into the incidents.

A mob of Druze-Israeli protesters near the village of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights on June 22 night dragged two wounded Syrian fighters from an ambulance, beating one to death and seriously injuring the second.

Earlier the same day a group of protesters attacked an ambulance driving by the Druze village of Hurfish, where residents blocked the path of the ambulance and threw stones at it.

The Druze attackers believed the injured men were members of Syrian rebel groups, which have been targeting Druze-Syrians living near the border with Israel as part of the country’s four-year civil war.

Israel treats wounded from the civil war in the field and at local hospitals regardless of what side they are fighting for. More than 1,600 wounded Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals during the civil war, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Israel says asked Syrian rebels not to harm Druze


Israel said on Monday it had conditioned humanitarian aid to select Syrian rebel groups on its border on their undertaking not to harm the Druze minority in the country's civil war.

Druze Arabs in Syria have long been loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and their brethren in Israel and the Golan Heights, which Israeli forces captured in 1967, have been lobbying the Netanyahu government to safeguard the community.

The Israelis, however, have sought to keep out of the more than four-year-old insurgency against Assad, an old foe who, they fear, may be toppled by more hostile Islamist militants.

But in a rare spillover of Syria's sectarian conflict into the Golan, a Druze mob last week beat to death a civil war casualty who was being taken by ambulance to Israel, where hundreds of Syrian wounded have received treatment during the conflict.

Israel has said it has also sent food and water across the frontier.

Briefing reporters on Monday, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said that, from the outset, Israel knew there were rebels among those it was helping and “placed two conditions on this aid – that terrorist groups not approach the fence, and that the Druze not be touched”.

He was referring to the southern Syrian Druze village of Hader on which rebels have encroached, setting off solidarity protests in the Golan and Israel where the Druze are an Arab minority with influence in the military and government.

Another Israeli defense official said that while Israel has not refused medical treatment to any Syrian approaching its lines, “later, when it became clear that they were rebels, we made sure that they understood we expected our conditions to be kept”.

The official said he knew of no cases of Israel helping members of Nusra Front, an al Qaeda offshoot in Syria which has beset the Druze. Rather, the official said, Israel has engaged mainly with non-jihadist rebels like the Free Syrian Army.

The “terrorists” referred to by Yaalon were radical Islamists that are bent on attacking Israel no less than on toppling Assad, the Israeli official told Reuters.

But he allowed that telling them apart from other armed factions “can be difficult”.

Yaalon said Israel's conditions were being upheld, but that the June 22 Druze attack on the ambulance that left one Syrian casualty dead and another seriously wounded may have backfired by “spurring calls for revenge against the Druze in Hader”.

Additional Druze arrested in ambulance attack


Three more Druze Israelis have been arrested in two attacks on ambulances carrying wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals, including one that left a Syrian dead.

The arrests early on Thursday come a day after the arrests of five people from the village of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights, where a mob of Druze-Israeli protesters on Monday night dragged two wounded Syrian fighters from the ambulance, beating one to death and seriously injuring the second,  and the arrests of four others believed to have been involved in an attack earlier Monday on an ambulance driving by the Druze village of Hurfish, where residents blocked the path of the ambulance and threw stones at it.

Two Israeli soldiers also were injured in the incidents.

A gag order has been imposed by police on the investigation into the incidents.

The Druze attackers believed the injured men were members of Syrian rebel groups, which have been targeting Druze-Syrians living near the border with Israel as part of the country’s four-year civil war.

Israel treats wounded from the civil war in the field and at local hospitals regardless of what side they are fighting for. More than 1,600 wounded Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals during the civil war, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Wednesday night with Druze community leaders, where he expressed appreciation for Druze contributions to the state and called for an end to violence against Israeli soldiers.

“Your sons, all of our sons, serve and fight in the IDF and defend our state. We all uphold the law and we are all loyal citizens. And if there is someone who deviates from these rules and takes the law into his hands, it is our duty, of course, to condemn this and see to it that these offenders do not become the norm. This is something that we must prevent – the recurrence of such events,” Netanyahu said.

“I think that it is also especially important to prevent attacks on IDF soldiers or hindering them as they carry out their missions. We have been successful in keeping Israel out of the anarchy that is happening around us. We did so because we always knew measure things and act prudently. This is, and will remain, our policy,” he said.

Druze leaders have condemned the attack.

Sheik Muafaq Tarif, spiritual leader of Druze in Israel, said in response: “Our faith, traditions and values are against attacking an ambulance or the injured. This is not our way. We did not educate for this. We strongly condemn what happened and of course we hope that you will continue to wisely and prudently lead on this issue. We are at your service.”

Tensions grow with Israel’s Druze community


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Israeli ambulances carrying wounded Syrians for treatment in Israeli hospitals will now be accompanied by police, after more than 100 Druze protestors attacked an ambulance, and killed a man they said was a member of the rebel forces in Syria. Israel arrested several Druze residents and leaders of the community condemned the attack.

The unprecedented incident highlighted the sharp rise in tensions which has been sparked by the advance of Sunni extremists in the northern Golan Heights, right on Israel’s doorstep. As Syrian rebel groups, chiefly Al-Nusra and Islamic State (ISIS), have pushed back troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they have increasingly threatened Druze communities in the south of the war-torn country. Twenty Syrian Druze were killed in a recent attack by Al-Nusra fighters, who view the community as heretical. The Druze in Syria have supported Assad and continue to do so.

Continued Israeli army treatment of casualties from Syria without discrimination along faction lines means that the very fighters threatening to assault Druze communities in southern Syria could be receiving medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. This has angered some residents who live only a short distance south of the border.

All of this comes during a debate in Israel regarding how far the country should go to support the Druze in Israel and their Syrian brethren, who are renowned for their loyalty to the state and tradition of military service.

“I think it’s high time that Israel helps the Druze – or at least offers to,” reservist Major General Uzi Dayan, told a news briefing shortly before the rising tensions boiled over into violence. 

Dayan argued that there were three reasons for the Jewish state to act: firstly “they need it – they are under an existential threat;” secondly Israel has a commitment to its Druze population who have served the country loyally for decades and are in turn committed to their relatives across the border; and thirdly it is in Israel’s interests to maintain a key ally on its northern border who is resistant to the expansion of aggressive jihadist factions. All three of these factors, Dayan stressed, represent moral and strategic reasons for Israel to take action.

“We can help them because they can help themselves,” Dayan said, explaining that the Druze were like Israelis in that they simply wanted to be given the tools necessary to do the job they were otherwise capable of. Weapons, training and logistics, not full Israeli intervention, would enable the Jewish state to bolster an ally on a hostile border – a border which was once quiet, Dayan said.

The former advisor to two Prime Ministers dismissed any notion that the old structure of the Middle East – the pre-Arab Spring arrangement – could be returned to the region. In an unpredictable environment, Dayan said, Israel could not foretell the future, but it could influence it.

Recent tensions on the border have also highlighted that the Druze are not a single homogeneous group. Although Druze within Israel are well known for their commitment to serve in the Israeli military, where they do conscription at a higher proportion to their fellow Jewish citizens, this is only true of those living within Israel’s 1948 borders. Many in communities which live in the Golan Heights, acquired by Israel in 1967, have remained loyal to the Syrian regime. Only a small minority have taken on Israeli citizenship and served in the country’s military.

Druze living in the Golan Heights have maintained a limbo existence since 1967,  Mordechai Nisan, from the Hebrew University, told The Media Line. Due to a lack of certainty on any future status of the Golan Heights the community has maintained its neutrality towards Israel. If the Druze living in Israel were certain that they would become a permanent part of the state then it is likely that the communities there would integrate, over time, and that its young men would begin to serve in the military, Nisan said.

The role of the community’s men in the Israeli security apparatus was highlighted by the death of a Druze police officer in November, who died of his injuries following a shootout in which he killed one of two terrorists conducting an attack on a Jerusalem Synagogue.

“The martial spirit of the Druze has been part of their character since they appeared on the historic stage,” Nisan said. “They are clearly a proud fighting people – their young men grow up with weapons in their hands and their communities are built on mountains,” Nisan explained, suggesting that the Druze belief in reincarnation diminished a fear of dying in combat.

Centuries of living as a minority surrounded by more powerful religious creeds has encouraged the community to maintain its martial edge. It has also taught Druze to espouse loyalty to whichever state they live within and traditionally they have not sought to create a country of their own, as other minorities such as the Kurds have.

Nisan explained that a commitment to the authority of the state is part of the community’s creed and has generally been as true of Druze in Syria as their coreligionists in Israel. “We sometimes think that there is a special relationship between Jews and the Druze – regarding Moses and Jethro,” Nisan said, referencing Moses's father-in-law from the Bible, who is the primary prophet in the Druze faith. But this is not solely directed towards Israel, he said, “They show loyalty to any country which respects their rights.”

The Druze religion, which is secretive and closed to outsiders, is heavily based on Islam but also takes strong influences from Judaism, ancient Greek philosophy and Indian religions.

All of the Druze leadership – both political and religious – have condemned the attacks on a military ambulance, Dr. Fawaz Kamal, the former head of the Arabic department at the Government Press Office, told The Media Line. Kamal, who is Druze himself, pointed out that the community’s spiritual leader in Israel, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, criticized the attack and said that “An individual shouldn’t act like this without following the advice of the leadership.”

An assault on a medical convoy is especially problematic, Kamal added, as in Druze tradition followers are compelled to help the wounded.

Although the attack was unjustified, the reason for the Druze community’s anger was quite apparent, Kamal said. Al-Nusra fighters are posing a clear danger to the Druze communities just a stone’s throw from the border whilst at the same time “hundreds of their fighters” have been given medical treatment by the Israeli army. As few Syrian civilians come close to the Israeli border, those being treated are mostly fighters, Kamal said. The Druze know this, Kamal explained, because many of the doctors working in the hospitals treating the fighters are from the community.

Beyond the humanitarian issue, officials say Israel has an incentive to treat individuals from groups like Al-Nusra, in an attempt to recruit them as informants and to expand the country’s intelligence understanding of events on the ground in Syria.

As the war in Syria pushes deeper into its fourth year the regional implications for its neighbors continue to be felt, this time by Israel as its northern border once again heats up. Just like the Yazidis and the Kurds before, the Druze have found themselves spotlighted by the sectarian nature of the conflict which has not been kind to the area's many minorities.

This has implications for the Jewish state and the Druze population living within its borders – a relationship already complicated by the unresolved status of the Golan Heights.

But if Israel is unsure how to act, the Druze – both Israeli citizens and permanent residents living in the Golan – apparently are not.

Druze are already helping their coreligionists in Syria anyway they can – politically, financially and with humanitarian aid. Many can be seen standing on the hills looking through binoculars into Syrian at the plight of their brothers. The situation might be sensitive, Kamal admits, but still, most of the young men among the Druze villages are ready to go into Syria and to fight on behalf of Syria's president  – many happily making use of their experience from the Israeli army.

Golan Druze attack Israeli army ambulance, Syrian casualty dies


Druze villagers on the Israeli Golan Heights attacked an Israeli military ambulance on Monday and one of two Syrian casualties it was carrying from the civil war next door died, police said.

The incident in the Golan village of Majdal Shams overlooking Syrian territory was the second attack by Druze on an Israeli army ambulance in less than 24 hours and underscored Druze concern for brethren caught up in Syria's civil war.

Israeli Police said villagers threw rocks and other missiles at the ambulance, inflicting extensive damage and causing a deterioration of the condition of the two wounded Syrians, who were initially said not to be in life-threatening condition.

The second wounded Syrian was being treated at an Israeli hospital and was in serious condition and two Israeli military ambulance crew were lightly hurt, police and the army said.

“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,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“I call on Druze leaders to act immediately to calm tensions,” he said.

Earlier on Monday, Israeli Druze blocked an Israeli army ambulance they believed was transporting wounded Syrian rebels, local authorities said.

The Druze are an Arab minority that practice an offshoot of Islam and whose adherents in Syria, long loyal to the ruling Assad family, are beset by jihadi insurgents. Israeli Druze, some of whom wield clout in Netanyahu's government and the military, have been urging intervention.

In the absence of such action, many Druze in Israel and the Golan Heights are angry at the admission of casualties from rival Sunni Muslim communities in Syria, anti-Assad fighters among them, for medical treatment.

In the earlier incident, the Israeli army ambulance carrying Syrian casualties was stopped before dawn on Monday on the outskirts of Hurfeish, a Druze town in northern Israel, by several residents who demanded to inspect the passengers, a police spokesman said.

The ambulance pulled away, with the Hurfeish residents throwing rocks at it as they followed in pursuit, police said, adding that a 54-year-old local man was injured after apparently being hit by the military vehicle.

Ayoob Kara, a Druze deputy Israeli minister, sought to reassure his kinsmen about Syrian casualties coming into Israel.

In a statement, Kara said Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon had told him Israel would not admit fighters from radical jihadi groups Islamic State or Nusra Front. Israeli officials have said they did not make treatment conditional on casualties' affiliations.

The military declined to elaborate on the identities of the Syrians who were in the ambulance stopped outside Hurfeish.

In a statement, Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, spiritual head of Israel's Druze community, condemned the confrontation as “the kind of provocation that harms our interests and those of our Druze brothers over the border”.

“This is our moment of truth,” he said. “The Druze religion and tradition opposes any physical harm, especially against wounded people.”

Druze violence over Syria poses dilemma for Israel


Throughout Syria's civil war, Israel has contended with bullets and mortars straying across its northern border. But now it faces a new spillover, with sectarian violence and regional loyalties threatening to drag it into the conflict.

After four years of keeping to the sidelines, Israel's position is becoming more precarious, particularly as it relates to the Druze community, a threatened people inside Syria and a vocal one across the frontier.

The Druze are a religious group who live as minorities across much of the region, with the biggest communities in Syria and Lebanon.

In this patchwork, Israel effectively houses two Druze populations. It has around 110,000 Druze citizens who identify as Israelis, serve in the army and have risen to prominent positions in government. A further 20,000 Druze live on the Golan Heights, land Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

The Syrian Druze, who are largely loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, are being drawn into the civil war. This in turn has raised fears for their fate among their brethren over the border in Israel. Some want Israel to intervene in a conflict that it is keen to keep out of.

Complicating matters yet further, some Druze in Israel and the Golan believe the country is helping their enemy – anti-Assad rebels. Israel regularly allows Syrian civilians and fighters into its territory for treatment at its hospitals.

The complex relationships between the Israeli Druze, the Golan Druze and the Druze in southern Syria – who are in many cases direct blood relations – is the thread pulling Israel closer into the Syrian crisis.

The latest cause for concern came on Monday, when Druze in northern Israel and the Golan separately attacked two Israeli military ambulances carrying wounded from Syria for treatment in Israeli hospitals.

In the Golan, one Syrian was killed by the Druze crowd, an attack that Israeli leaders described as a lynching.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon offered assurances on Tuesday that he had the situation under control. “There are many complex considerations, leave it to us to handle,” he said in a statement. “We know what to do to protect the Druze on the Golan while not complicating matters in Syria and our side.”

TRADITIONAL LOYALTY

The two incidents on Monday showed how traditional sectarian loyalty transcends frontiers in a region that is being reshaped by new forces, said Professor Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies.

He said the Druze outcry also poses moral and operational dilemmas for Israel. “The Druze community which lives here contributes to Israel, has equal citizenship,” Rabi said. “But the Mideast challenges arrive at your door and you need to handle them with kid gloves. Israel must help but under no condition get entangled in Syria.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made comments on Tuesday that reflected the tightrope Israel is walking. He denounced the ambulance assaults while hailing what he described as Israel's “alliance of brothers” with its Druze citizens.

“We will find those who carried out the lynching,” he said in a speech in Tel Aviv. “I call on the leaders of the Druze community … to calm things down.”

Rabi said Israel should be part of a regional umbrella of countries, like Jordan, to help the Druze if they come under threat, but must not undertake a solo operation.

The religious leader of Israel's Druze, Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, said a report on Channel 2 TV may have been the final straw for his community.

This showed a man being treated in an Israeli hospital who identified himself as a member of the Free Syria Army rebel group. The wounded man said he would do nothing to defend Druze against Islamist jihadi rebels, adding that Druze fighting for Assad had killed his friends and neighbors.

Tarif, who condemned the ambulance assaults, said on Israeli Army Radio that the man's comments “should have raised alarm bells for everyone”.

Israel says it is playing a humanitarian role in treating wounded who come to its borders, and that it does not screen them for political or sectarian alliances.

For now, the Druze leaders are trying to defuse tension. On Tuesday, leading sheiks from the community gathered in Israel's Galilee to denounce the ambulance attacks and call for calm.

Israeli Druze block ambulance with Syrian casualties


Israeli Druze blocked an Israeli army ambulance they believed was transporting wounded Syrian rebels on Monday, local authorities said, a rare confrontation underscoring Druze concern for brethren caught up in the civil war next door.

The Druze are an Arab minority that practice an offshoot of Islam and whose adherents in Syria, long loyal to the ruling Assad family, are beset by jihadi insurgents. Israeli Druze, some of whom wield clout in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the military, have been urging intervention.

In the absence of such action, many Druze in Israel and the Israeli Golan Heights are angry at the admission of casualties from rival Sunni Muslim communities in Syria — anti-Assad fighters among them — for medical treatment.

An Israeli army ambulance carrying Syrian casualties was stopped before dawn on Monday on the outskirts of Hurfeish, a Druze town in northern Israel, by several residents who demanded to inspect the passengers, a police spokesman said.

The ambulance pulled away, with the Hurfeish residents throwing rocks at it as they followed in pursuit, the police spokesman said, adding that a 54-year-old local man was injured after apparently being hit by the military vehicle.

Farah Sabeq, secretary of the Hurfeish municipality, confirmed several townsmen had taken part in the incident. Speaking to Reuters, he described them as “incensed by the situation in Syria” and said that while they had tried to close the road used by the ambulance, he knew of no stone-throwing.

“We condemn this as we would any illegal activity, but especially here, as it involved the security forces — in all branches of which Hurfeish residents serve,” Sabeq said.

Ayoob Kara, a Druze deputy Israeli minister, sought to reassure his kinsmen about Syrian casualties coming into Israel.

In a statement, Kara said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon had told him Israel would not admit fighters from radical jihadi groups Islamic State or Nusra Front. Israeli officials have said they did not condition treatment on casualties' affiliations.

The military declined to elaborate on the identities of the Syrians who were in the ambulance stopped outside Hurfeish.

In a statement, Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, the head of Israel's Druze community, condemned the confrontation as “the kind of provocation that harms our interests and those of our Druze brothers over the border”.

“This is our moment of truth,” he said. “The Druze religion and tradition opposes any physical harm, especially against wounded people.”

Israel says prepared for possible Syrian refugee throngs on Golan


Israel signaled readiness on Tuesday to intervene if Syrian refugees were to throng to its armistice line on the Golan Heights, after Israel's Druze Arab minority stepped up a public campaign to help brethren caught up in the civil war next door.

Israel has sought to keep out of the four-year-old crisis in Syria, an old foe from which it captured the strategic Golan in a 1967 conflict and where it fears more belligerent Islamist militants could take over should President Bashar al-Assad fall.

So far, Israeli forces have limited themselves to returning fire into Syria when shooting hit their side of the Golan, and admitting hundreds of refugees for medical treatment.

But with no end in sight to the fighting that has sent some 4 million Syrians fleeing to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, Israel's top military officer told parliament on Tuesday that preparations were under way to respond to any massing of refugees on the Golan.

“If a large number of refugees comes to the border from the combat zones, we will do what is needed to prevent a massacre,” Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot said, according to a person who was present at the parliamentary briefing.

Eizenkot, who was invoking a scenario of refugees being targeted by Islamist insurgents or Assad loyalists on the Syrian-held side of the Golan, did not elaborate on Israel's planned actions.

On Sunday, the Israeli news site Walla reported Israel was examining the possibility of enforcing a “humanitarian aid zone” on the other side of the Golan separation fence — specifically for any influx of Syrian Druze fleeing Islamist insurgents.

Walla did not detail how such a zone might be set up or defended. Israeli officials declined comment on the report.

But Israel is mindful of calls for intervention by its own Druze, some of whose members have reached senior posts in the armed forces or government, and by Druze on its side of the Golan who have been demonstrating at the fence.

Military spokesman Brigadier-General Moti Almoz said the top brass held a special Golan assessment on Tuesday “as part of the common cause and blood-alliance between us and our Druze brothers in the State of Israel”.

But Almoz, in a statement posted on Facebook, said the Israeli side of the Golan was “calm, without irregular events” and that Eizenkot had ordered no change to current deployments.

IDF chief pledges to protect Syrian refugees, provide humanitarian aid


The Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff said the army will act to protect Syrian refugees from being slaughtered by the Islamic State, or ISIS.

In a Knesset hearing Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said he is concerned by the proximity of Syria’s civil war fighting to the Israeli border and that the IDF will provide both humanitarian aid and security for fleeing Syrian refugees, the Times of Israel reported.

Also Tuesday, the IDF declared a part of the Golan Heights a closed military zone, preventing non-residents of the area, including tourists, from entering. The closure in the northeast portion is meant to “ensure the required safety level,” the IDF said in a statement. It follows intense fighting between government forces and rebels on the Golan border as part of the four-year civil war in Syria.

On Monday, thousands of Israeli Druze demonstrated on behalf of their Syrian counterparts, 20 of whom were murdered by ISIS last week. The Israeli Druze community announced that it had collected $2.6 million for the Syrian Druze to purchase weapons and urged the Israeli government to offer additional assistance, according to the Times of Israel.

Israel to invest $500 million in Druze, Circassian communities


Israel’s Cabinet approved a more than $500 million plan to develop Druze and Circassian communities.

The five-year plan approved Sunday follows a previous plan that lasted from 2011 to 2014.

The first half of the new plan was approved in December.

Under the plan, the Israeli government will invest significant resources in the Druze and  Circassiancommunities in education, social welfare, employment, tourism, transportation and planning budgets.

“You represent an entire public that fights and sacrifices for the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “I think that this is not only a duty but a privilege to allocate government resources in order to help this public, especially the young people, so that they might have a better future in their communities and in the country.

“In my visits to the villages, in the meeting that we had there last year with community leaders, I was struck by the gap that had been created and which we need to close.”

About 140,000 Druze and Circassians live in Israel. Sixteen villages are included in the plan.

Golan Heights resident indicted for spying for Syria


A resident of the Golan Heights was indicted for spying on Israel for Syria.

Suleiman Sidqi from the predominantly Druze town of Majdl Shams is accused of spying for the Syrian government, aiding an enemy entity, having contact with a foreign agent and supporting a terrorist organization, Army Radio on Friday reported based on the indictment against Sidqi.

Prosecutors submitted the document Friday to the Nazareth District Court.

The indictment says Sidqi collected sensitive material on military activity near the border between Israel and Syria and on senior Israel Defense Forces officers. He then gave the information to Syrian army officers, according to the indictment.

The indictment also said Sidqi admitted to collecting intelligence on Israel and to having contacts with Madhet Saleh, a Syrian with ties to the Syrian military intelligence. Sidqi was released from an Israeli jail in 2012 after serving a 27-year-sentence for terrorist activity, the indictment said.

Israel, which conquered the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, annexed the territory in 1981. The area is home to approximately 20,000 former Syrians who belong to the Druze sect and faith.

In Syria, the leadership of the Druze community has traditionally been a close ally of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite minority, which ruled the country for decades.

Israel has offered citizenship to the Golan Heights Druze, but only several hundred became citizens.

Leaders of the Druze community in the Golan Heights have publicly rejected Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, which they say belongs to Syria.

What really happened in the battle of Khuzaa, Gaza?


No neighborhood along the eastern half of the Gaza strip — the half closest to Israel — emerged unscathed from the recent 50-day war in Gaza, which left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead.

But in Khuzaa, a middle-class farming town of around 10,000 in southern Gaza that pushes up against Israel’s border fence, survivors of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ground invasion remember a separate kind of drawn-out agony.

During the first four days of the ground war, thousands of terrified civilians in Khuzaa found themselves caught in a tornado of deadly metals — bullets, bombs, shells, shrapnel — with no way to escape. More than in other areas, Khuzaa residents were forced to come face-to-face with armed Israeli soldiers who had taken control of the area.

Based on interviews with these civilians, as well as conversations with IDF soldiers who fought in the area, the Journal has compiled a rough outline of the battle in Khuzaa. None of the soldiers felt they could speak on the record.

Ahmad Al Najjar, 78, described the moment his elderly uncle wandered out into Khuzaa's main street and was shot dead.

IDF soldiers told the Journal they were instructed to fire warning shots at anyone who came too close to them or one of their bases — then to kill them if they came any closer. They said Hamas’ choice of an urban battlefield, and Hamas’ history of deploying plainclothes fighters and suicide bombers, made it impossible to determine who was or was not a threat.

However, more than a dozen Khuzaa residents who spoke to the Journal, and many more interviewed by Human Rights Watch and the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights — non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with operations in Gaza — said they and their neighbors were deliberately targeted by the IDF while trying to flee their homes during the fighting.

The United Nations Human Rights Council suggested a few days into the Khuzaa incursion that both Hamas and Israel may have violated the international laws of war by targeting civilians.

“It is imperative that Israel, Hamas and all Palestinian armed groups strictly abide by applicable norms of international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said to the council on July 23. “This entails applying the principles of distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives; proportionality; and precautions in attack. Respect for the right to life of civilians, including children, should be a foremost consideration. Not abiding by these principles may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Despite repeated requests, spokespeople at the IDF refused to comment on Palestinian witness accounts collected by the Journal.

The IDF’s foreign press branch initially said in a statement to the Journal that the events of the battle in Khuzaa were “currently under investigation” and that “once investigations will be completed, we will be able to supply you with all the information about the different occurrences.”

Later, after additional attempts over several days asking the IDF to respond to Palestinian allegations, the foreign press branch stated: “The events that you requested information about are not familiar to the IDF, according to our resources and investigations. If we receive additional details regarding these events they will be looked into again.”

Today, more than one month after the initial invasion, Khuzaa’s residential area is a gray wasteland of crumbled stucco and cement. The air, once sweet, reeks of dust and death. At the edge of Khuzaa, olive orchards have been reduced to piles of sticks and leaves, and shreds of white greenhouses jut like broken wings from sand pits where IDF tanks roamed. All that’s left of the town’s central mosque, one of nine mosques reportedly destroyed in the Israeli incursion, are a dome and a minaret wedged into a mountain of rubble.

The Ebad El Rahman mosque in central Khuzaa, along with an adjacent water tower, was destroyed in the IDF ground invasion.

“This was the best area in all of the Gaza Strip, it was a tourist area — secure and safe, with no problems and good people,” a dazed member of the municipal council told Reuters, standing next to the rubble of his former home. But after the war, he said, “Khuzaa no longer exists. It is like an earthquake hit.”

The ghost town’s demolished exterior also hints at the prolonged human suffering felt here during the first days of the IDF ground operation.

Residents of Khuzaa who were stuck in the city during the messy battles between Israel, Hamas (Gaza’s ruling government party) and other armed Palestinian factions said they tried to arrange an exodus for days. Finally, in small groups, most were able to escape via a dusty farm road on the southeast edge of town — emerging injured, dehydrated and incredulous about the horrors they’d just seen.

More information about their ordeal is likely to emerge as human-rights organizations and a United Nations fact-finding mission sift through the widespread devastation in Gaza and collect more testimony from Khuzaa and other hard-hit areas.

“We don’t know every single story that’s happened so far,” said Mahmoud Abu Rahma, international relations director for the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, an NGO in Gaza whose donors include federal agencies from Switzerland, Holland and Norway. “But for us, it’s really important to arrive at the truth. We will only introduce allegations when we are sure that a war crime was committed.”

(Abu Rahma has also been openly critical of human-rights abuses by Palestinian leaders in Gaza. In 2012, he was attacked by masked assailants after he penned an op-ed slamming violence by Palestinian armed groups against Palestinian civilians — and the silence of Gaza authorities, led by Hamas.)

Getting to the bottom of the recent battle in Khuzaa, Abu Rahma said, poses a unique challenge. “In Khuzaa, many people stayed behind,” he said. “So it’s the area where you find the most interaction between the Israeli army and civilians, and for quite a while — four days. That’s why we’re focusing on how civilians in Khuzaa were treated during these days.”

“Clouds of glory”

The Gaza ground incursion began on July 17 as an Israeli mission to take out Palestinian tunnels and rocket launchers used to attack civilian areas. On the first day of the mission, an IDF spokesperson told the Journal that “phone calls were made by IDF representatives to Palestinian leaders in the area to notify the residents of Khuzaa to evacuate the premises.”

Located just a few hundred meters from the Israeli border, Khuzaa has always been on the frontline of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Following the IDF’s brief 2009 ground invasion of Khuzaa, the United Nations found evidence that at least one woman was shot dead there while waving a white flag. At least 16 Khuzaa residents were reported killed in that operation.

This summer’s death toll in Khuzaa is believed to be more than four times as high as in 2009. The Al Mezan organization has counted around 75 deaths inside the town, although it is not known which of those were fighters and which civilians.

“It was the first time Israel attacked this area like that — they didn’t do that before,” the town’s community doctor, Kamal Qdeih, said.  Residents told the Journal that based on past operations, they vastly underestimated the IDF’s intentions in Khuzaa — one reason why thousands of civilians ignored evacuation leaflets, deciding instead to stay home, brace themselves and ride out the attack.

Kamal Qdeih, a doctor in Khuzaa, said he cared for more than 100 wounded residents at once in his small home clinic during the ground war.

Again, on July 20, the IDF said it “informed the citizens of Khuzaa, via telephone and local media, to evacuate the area due to IDF scheduled operations against terror sites and infrastructures in the area.”

But when no bombs had fallen by the night of July 20, hundreds who had fled to Khan Younis, the nearest city — crowding into friends and relatives’ houses and United Nations schools — decided to risk returning home.

Hundreds of Khuzaa residents escaped via one small farm road at the edge of town on July 24, starving, injured and dehydrated after days stuck in the battle zone.

They soon realized their mistake. Residents said that the next day, the IDF bombed craters into the road leading from Khuzaa to Khan Younis, so that no vehicles — including ambulances — could come or go. (An Al Jazeera video report a few weeks later, when fighting had died down, showed this to be true.)

In homes across Khuzaa, electricity was shut off and water stopped running from taps.

In response to an inquiry about the level of threat posed in Khuzaa, the IDF stated: “During the time the IDF forces were in Khuzaa, they exposed many terror sites which were located in central residential areas, including terror tunnels and many weapon caches.”

Daniel Nisman, a military analyst at the Levantine Group and former IDF soldier who participated in Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, said: “Khuzaa, like Shujaiya, is what the Israeli military refers to as ‘the shell’ of Gaza, where the border towns are reinforced and the center is soft. In this context, Khuzaa is the main defense of Khan Younis and east Rafah.”

Like in other neighborhoods where Israel fought Hamas, the initial IDF aerial bombings cleared the way for columns of Israeli tanks and soldiers to more safely enter Khuzaa. According to young Israelis in the battle, the Khuzaa team included soldiers from the Combat Engineering Corps (who specialize in blowing up tunnels), the Paratroopers Brigade and some from the elite Golani brigade.

But they said the majority of Israeli combat soldiers who fought in Khuzaa were from the Givati brigade, the southern infantry brigade trained specifically to fight in Gaza.

As Givati tanks rolled toward Khuzaa, Col. Ofer Winter, the brigade’s commander, famously said in an interview with the Orthodox weekly Mishpacha that “clouds of glory” had guarded the fleet. “Only when the soldiers were in a secure position did the fog dissipate,” he said.

One young Givati soldier, too, told the Journal: “God was with us in every step on the way.”

Mohammed Abu Reeda, 12, peered into a partially destroyed home that IDF soldiers had occupied near their tank staging area.

Once inside Khuzaa, soldiers occupied some of the town’s multi-story, ornately decorated homes — transforming them into bases where they could take turns sleeping, strategizing and watching for Palestinian fighters below.

During various temporary cease fires in August, Khuzaa residents eagerly showed journalists the evidence they’d found of IDF soldiers living in their homes, now trashed and riddled with holes. One boy retrieved a green IDF jacket. Another pointed out a hole in his floor where the IDF had checked for tunnels. Seven-year-old Adam Abu Erjala, wearing a shirt that read “I’m a happy boy,” held out a bag of Israeli bullet casings he’d collected from his cousins’ home and posed with an Israeli mine-clearing device five times the size of his body, which he had found lying in his cousins’ front yard.

Adam Abu Erjala posed with a spent Israeli mine-clearing device he found outside his cousins' house.

Upstairs, in the frilly pink bedroom of Abu Erjala’s cousins, soldiers had drawn maps of the neighborhood onto the girls’ beds in permanent ink.

Adam Abu Erjala, 7, pointed out a map that IDF soldiers had drawn on his cousin's bed.

A pair of reporters who entered an all-girls school in Khuzaa found an anti-tank weapon that Israeli soldiers had left behind in the principal’s office. Stars of David had been spray-painted onto the walls.

Another building on the outskirts of Khuzaa, a partially demolished red-and-white farm house belonging to the Qdeih family, was filled with soldiers’ detritus — a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary, an IDF newsletter, snack wrappers, empty toothpaste tubes, rotting tomatoes and heaps of other trash. IDF tanks had ransacked the garden, turning it into a big sand pit by using it as a parking lot for armored vehicles.

But while soldiers were taking up residence in Palestinian homes, panicked civilians were sometimes hiding in homes right next door, just meters away.

“We knew the air force dropped leaflets calling for civilians to evacuate the area, but we also knew some might remain,” a 22-year-old combat soldier in the Givati brigade said. Nevertheless, he was shocked to see so many civilians still in the area when he arrived.

“The most difficult challenge in Khuzaa, in my opinion, was the citizens,” the soldier said. “Most of the fighting was in populated areas that Hamas had turned into a battlefield. And as a result, innocent civilians were injured.”

Multiple IDF soldiers said they were told Hamas was threatening to kill any civilians who left their homes. More than a dozen Khuzaa residents who spoke to the Journal, however, strongly denied this, and blamed the IDF for refusing to let them leave once fighting had begun.

A Human Rights Watch report released on Aug. 4, based on Palestinian witness accounts, found that IDF soldiers had shot, and sometimes killed, unarmed civilians as they were trying to flee. “The failure of civilians to abide by warnings does not make them lawful targets of attack… since many people do not flee because of infirmity, fear, lack of a place to go, or any number of other reasons,” said the report. “The remaining presence of such civilians despite a warning to flee cannot be ignored when attacks are carried out.”

“Khuzaa is destroyed”

Khuzaa residents sat in the rubble of their homes on the final day of a 72-hour cease fire in August.

One of the oldest men in the village, Mohammed Hussein Al Najjar, a former businessman whose relatives believed he was over 100 years old, wandered out of his home after an Israeli warplane bombed the building next door. “He was almost deaf, so he couldn’t hear us crying for him to come back,” said his nephew, 78-year-old Ahmad Al Najjar, whose dark and wrinkled face was crowned by a red keffiyeh.

Al Najjar said he heard Israeli tank fire outside. The next time he saw his uncle Mohammed, he said the old man was face-down in the road, dead in a pool of his own blood.

“I don’t know why they would do this. They’re going crazy,” Al Najjar said of the Israelis. “I used to believe in peace. But we don’t know anything about peace here.”

The 78-year-old said the Khuzaa invasion was the most horrific battle he’d seen in a lifetime of war.

Because of IDF orders to be suspicious even of apparent civilians, a 22-year-old Israeli soldier in the Combat Engineering Corps who destroyed tunnels in Khuzaa said he and fellow soldiers were forced to shoot an old Palestinian woman coming toward them when she didn’t heed their orders to stop. Even when wounded, he said, she continued crawling in their direction, so they fired again, killing her.

The soldier said he was deeply disturbed by the incident, but that Israeli soldiers had to protect themselves at all costs. While in Khuzaa, he said he was consumed by the omnipresent fear of death. Palestinian bullets were constantly whizzing by — killing one of his friends, the soldier said, and shattering the hand of another.

To effectively destroy the tunnels, IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps had to crawl deep inside them so they could lace them with explosives. They frequently came across Palestinian fighters inside the tunnels, on foot or motorcycle, and killed them on the spot.

The owner of this Khuzaa property said he had no idea how, or with what resources, he would begin to rebuild his house.

However, the young combat engineer said he watched some of his friends shoot indiscriminately at Palestinians in the area without proof they were fighters. He said they also wrote anti-Arab messages on the walls of the homes they occupied.

During a temporary cease fire in late August, evidence of the four-day Khuzaa nightmare was still everywhere in the home clinic of Qdeih, the local doctor, as he spoke to the Journal. His lone cot was streaked in blood; used bunches of gauze littered the countertops and shards of glass covered the floor; a Red Crescent apron lay crumpled in a corner.

Qdeih, a Hamas critic and supporter of the Palestinian political party Fatah, converted his modest Khuzaa home and office into an almost impossibly packed infirmary for more than 100 wounded Palestinians during the long days and nights they were boxed in by fighting, he said.

The first batch of injured was brought to his home after a group of hundreds, including Qdeih, attempted their first escape on July 22.

The group approached the line of Israeli tanks blocking the main road to Khan Younis, Qdeih said, and shouted to soldiers that they were civilians, lifting their shirts to show they weren’t wearing weapons. But, he said, the army began firing at them after telling them over a megaphone that the International Committee for the Red Cross wasn’t waiting for them on the other side, and that they should go home. (Various other witnesses confirmed this account.)

The welcome sign to Khuzaa, a lush farming town in southern Gaza, was cut down in fighting between Israel and Hamas.

According to the doctor, around 30 gravely wounded residents were carried back to his house after the attack. But one was left behind, stuck in her wheelchair: 16-year-old girl Gadir Abu Erjala, who had epilepsy and had received years of medical care in Israel.

Speaking to the Journal weeks later during a cease-fire, the girl’s mother, Hamda, was wracked with guilt about having to leave her daughter in the road. The interview took place in her home — remarkably intact compared to the rest of Khuzaa.

“The tanks were shooting at us and revving their engines,” Hamda said, raising her voice as tears fell onto her hijab. “There is no way we would have survived.”

Hamda said her teen daughter had initially begged not to go outside, but that the family needed to evacuate the girl as soon as possible, as she had run out of medicine. “There were a lot of civilians here, so we didn’t think they would do something like that,” her mother said of the IDF.

Gadir’s brother, Bilal, said he was pushing her wheelchair and approaching the line of IDF tanks guarding Khuzaa when he was shot in the hand. Bilal was forced to let go, and he and his family members — under fire — stumbled too far back to return for Gadir. The young man’s right arm is now wrapped in a thick cast.

Rasan, another of Gadir’s older brothers, said he placed countless calls to the Red Cross in the following days, trying to secure a safe passage with the Israeli army to retrieve his sister. He hoped she might still be alive. But every time he emerged from the house, Rasan said he came under fire again and had to retreat.

The Abu Erjala family lost their youngest sister Gadir, an epileptic 16-year-old in a wheelchair, when they tried to evacuate Khuzaa.

When presented with a detailed account of this alleged incident, the IDF said only that the entire battle of Khuzaa was “under investigation.” When the Journal presented more details about Gadir’s death and asked if the fire that killed her could have come from Hamas, the IDF stated that the entire incident was “not familiar to the IDF, according to our resources and investigations.” However, Israeli soldiers, speaking anonymously, said that although they didn’t witness this event, shooting at any Gazan who refused to retreat would be in accord with IDF protocol.

More than a week later, when it was finally safe for the Abu Erjala family to return for their 16-year-old, her corpse was unrecognizable — blown to bits, lying 20 meters from her wheelchair. “She tried to walk toward the soldiers,” Rasan said, his eyes wide and blank.

Her father interjected, furious. “Are there rules against that?” he asked. “Leaving people injured in the road after 10 days?”

Gadir was the light of Abu Erjala household, her mother said, and always made her brothers laugh when they were angry. “We’re missing something from the house,” Bilal said. “We still think this is like a dream. We don’t believe it happened.”

It seems that after this war, nearly every family in Khuzaa has its own tragic story of human loss.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Palestinian mother Faten Qdeih said that after watching her 7-year-old boy killed in the street, she made the impossible decision to leave his body behind and flee with her daughters, still alive. “I would rather I had died than see what I've seen,” she told the paper.

After he escaped Khuzaa on July 24, Mahmoud Ismail, a biomedical engineering student at an Egyptian university, took to Twitter to describe what he saw. “Khuzaa is destroyed… My folks and I came out alive, but I have no explanation as to how or why,” he wrote. (The Journal was not able to reach Ismail for an interview.)

While inside, Ismail said, “I watched from the window in my room, for hours, all the stages of death of a 20-year-old young man.”

The college student described running through Khuzaa with his family, looking for an escape route. “Right in front of my eyes a little boy fell from his mother's arm while she held a white flag in her other hand,” he wrote. “The boy died. She used the flag to wrap him and continued her way with the rest of her children. Horror.”

On July 24, according to the IDF, army planes dropped evacuation leaflets into Khuzaa. “This is part of the IDF's modus operandi to prevent harming civilians,” the army’s foreign press office said. “The leaflets contained messages instructing residents to evacuate areas in which the IDF was to operate. The leaflets were written in Arabic and often included visual aids.”

Another branch of the Qdeih family told the Journal they were still trapped in their basement in east Khuzaa on July 25, badly in need of food and water, when they heard bulldozers crashing into the side of the house and soldiers entering their home upstairs. When the patriarch, 64-year-old Mohammed Qdeih, decided to go upstairs to speak with them, carrying a white flag, his niece Raghad said she watched an Israeli soldier shoot him dead.

The soldier was young, with blonde hair and light eyes that showed “fear and dread,” she said. “He was trembling.”

Raghad said she and her relatives, including women and children, were then held in the house “under an atmosphere of intimidation and horror” for hours as soldiers used it as a base, moving family members into the same rooms from which they were shooting.

She was confused, then, by one small act of kindness by a Druze soldier. “We asked him to bring food for the children, and he brought bread and tuna, but then disappeared,” she said. “But the rest of the soldiers, they were fierce.”

The residents of Khuzaa are also skeptical of Israeli soldiers’ motives in their decision to transport a 75-year-old Palestinian woman to the IDF field hospital on the Israeli side of the border, and later to a hospital inside Israel, to be treated for dehydration.

“It’s confusing,” said Kamal Qdeih, 40, the neighborhood doctor. “Maybe that happened because they want to make the world think they’re OK. But if they’re really humanitarian, they should take care of humans. They shouldn’t kill civilians.”

Hamda, the mother of the epileptic girl who died, was also confused. “Why would they leave a special-needs kid, a 16-year-old girl, in the road, and they care for an old woman?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”

Yosef Al Najjar, 55, lives within eyeshot of the Israeli border fence. After his family escaped Khuzaa, he said he returned to their home compound during a brief cease fire to find six Palestinian corpses piled and rotting in the bathroom of his son’s house. Israeli bullet casings were scattered around the home, and a line of bullet holes studded the bathroom wall.

“My son doesn’t want to come back to this house anymore,” Al Najjar said. “He feels there are still souls screaming inside.”

“Khuzaa is a symbol of dignity,” a member of the Al Najjar family wrote a few meters from the bathroom where six Palestinian fighters were found apparently executed.

The human-rights organization Al Mezan has since identified the six victims of the apparent execution as fighters. All between the ages of 21 and 25, the men are “listed as combatants by Al Mezan on our lists,” a spokesman told the Journal.

Both Al Mezan and Human Rights Watch are currently investigating the incident. According to both organizations, if Israel did execute enemy fighters once they were in custody, that could constitute a war crime.

The Israeli army has repeatedly asserted that Hamas is the side committing war crimes by embedding military infrastructure inside civilian areas. For example, battlefield photos and videos released by the IDF show weapons caches and tunnel entrances located in public mosques.

A young Givati soldier who fought in Shujaiya, north of Khuzaa, told the Journal that he saw women and children used as combatants. A boy he estimated to be only about 10 years old came running toward IDF soldiers, the source said, yelling: “Allahu Akbar [God is great]!” After the IDF shot the boy dead, the soldier said they lifted his shirt to find a suicide vest.

But many Khuzaa residents believe the IDF sometimes targeted civilians and city infrastructure not to protect themselves, but to show their strength and avenge fallen Israeli soldiers.

Khuzaa residents set up a tent near their toppled water tower during a brief August cease-fire.

In a video uploaded to YouTube, confirmed to be authentic by the IDF, the army can be seen blowing up a mosque in Khuzaa. Soldiers cheer in the background. “This demolition is dedicated to the memory of three battalion soldiers who lost their lives since the beginning of the operation!” a narrator says in Hebrew, identifying himself as a member of the Givati brigade.

“Soldiers are perfectly entitled to be happy about destroying a tunnel used to carry out attacks against Israel,” the IDF said in a statement to the France 24 news channel.

Col. Winter, Givati's commander, used strong religious rhetoric throughout the war. “History has chosen us to spearhead the fighting [against] the terrorist ‘Gazan’ enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s forces,” he wrote in a letter to his officers. And in an interview with Israeli media, Winter said of a surprise IDF air assault that killed more than 100 bystanders in Rafah, south of Khuzaa, after an Israeli soldier disappeared: “Whoever kidnaps has to know that he will pay a price. It was not revenge. They simply started up with the wrong brigade.”

The last “checkpoint”

For days at Kamal Qdeih’s home clinic, the wounded from the first mass escape attempt were laid out on every floor surface, waiting to die. Later, speaking to the Journal, survivors of the ordeal said they could see an Israeli soldiers staked out in the house next door through the doctor’s kitchen window.

Over the next few days, explosions rocked the neighborhood, and dozens more wounded were carried to Qdeih’s front door. When the doctor’s own 23-year-old brother, Ahmad, stepped outside to find water, he was killed by a drone rocket that hit just behind the home.

Qdeih’s 12-year-old daughter, Abir, tried to squeeze her neighbors’ open wounds to prevent blood loss. “I was helping my father,” she said. “I was afraid we were going to lose someone. I kept my hand there for as long as I could.”

By the morning of July 24, Qdeih estimates that the group sheltering in his home had reached around 140 people. So he squeezed everyone into a larger basement next door, thinking it would be safer.

But when a tear gas canister came flying through the window, Qdeih decided they had no choice but to try to escape again. “Injured people were lying here for days with no water, no food, no electricity,” he said. “There was one 4-year-old child. If we had waited five more hours to leave, he would have died.”

The doctor said his 9-year-old son, Hamza, told him: “Just go, don’t be afraid. I am going to support you.”

Qdeih had coordinated with the Red Cross and knew ambulances were waiting for them a few kilometers away, on the other side of the Israeli tank perimeter.

Khuzaa families searched through what remained of their demolished homes during various cease fires in August.

(The Red Cross and the Red Crescent reported that they had not, up to that point, been granted a humanitarian passageway into Khuzaa. When a Red Crescent ambulance attempted to enter the battle zone on July 25, one medic was killed and others wounded. By July 26, the Red Cross stated that “many more people in need are still in Khuzaa.”)

So the doctor’s group made one last effort, marching toward Khan Younis down a narrow farming road at the southeast edge of Khuzaa. They dragged their feet in the sand, heavy with heat and exhaustion. Survivors remembered children screaming for water.

When they reached what they called an IDF “checkpoint” on the way out of town, the Khuzaa residents said the Israeli soldiers told them to sit down. Soldiers took photos of them, they said, and peered at them through the scopes of their rifles. And after some time, when the soldiers released the group to walk the rest of the way to Khan Younis, witnesses alleged that IDF soldiers fired many rounds over their heads and near their feet to scare them.

“This was the most sad Ramadan we ever had,” the doctor said.

Members of another group that escaped via the same dirt road that same morning told the Journal that a man in their group, Mohammed Al Najjar, was shot dead by the IDF soldiers at the “checkpoint.” (Testimony provided to the Palestinian rights group Al Mezan described a similar incident.)

Khuzaa resident Khaled Al Karaa, 25, showed a reporter the road where he escaped on July 24.

The farming road where Khuzaa residents fled for their lives is now covered in a mash of cactus, greenhouse tents and tank-churned dirt. A few young men showed a reporter the spot where they said the “checkpoint” shooting had occurred.

“I think they did this to show us they’re strong and can kill us inside our own land,” Khaled Al Karaa, 25, said.

Sixteen-year-old Gadir’s wheelchair, too, sat on the main road to Khan Younis for weeks after she was killed, crumpled and gathering desert dust — another reminder to the residents of Khuzaa of all they had lost.

Israelis look nervously across to Syria


The Golan Heights on the border between Israel and Syria is a favorite holiday destination for Israelis, and thousands were hiking and picnicking there during the recent holidays. But the Israeli army asked some visitors to leave after a group of 50 Syrians, some of them armed, approached the border with Israel in the area of Mount Hermon, which in the winter functions as Israel’s only ski resort.

Some of the fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Syrian rebels has moved closer to the Israeli border, and several mortar rounds have landed inside Israeli territory. Israeli officials believe these mortars were not aimed at Israel.

“The army’s intelligence forecasts according to which the [Syrian side of the] Golan Heights would become a loosely governed area are proving true,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi said during a tour of the Syrian border. “The weakening of the Syrian regime’s grip [on the border region] and the increasing infiltration of global jihad elements pose a new threat, which the army is preparing for.” 

Israeli officials say the border between Israel and Syria has been one of the quietest since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But as the fighting in Syria continues, there is fear that it could spread over the border into Israel. Syria has always demanded the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967. Israel has always said it will discuss the future of the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria. Perhaps as a warning to Syria, Israeli troops held a “surprise” training exercise with thousands of reservists near the border last month.

“I was on the Golan Heights this week, and we heard shots and yelling,” former National Security Adviser Uzi Dayan said. “We should move more troops to the border and maintain the security fence. We need to be prepared for all possibilities, including a terror attack from Syria.”

The fence between Israel and Syria was built after the 1973 war. In June 2011, at least 14 pro-Palestinian protesters were killed trying to cross into Israel from Syria during an anti-Israel demonstration.

Israel is closely watching events in Syria, where 19 months of bitter fighting has yet to bring a decisive victory for either Assad or the rebels.

“Assad’s control is failing,” Dayan said. “It doesn’t mean he will fall immediately, but in the long run he won’t be in power. It is possible that someone will assassinate him, or an entire division with its commanders will go to the other side and it will be over.”

Israel is worried about what happens after Assad. The most likely possibilities are either that Syria will become a Sunni state, as the majority of the population is Sunni, or will fragment into several small mini-states. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority, a branch of Shia Islam.

The Druze community in the Golan Heights is watching the situation especially closely. Although they live under Israeli sovereignty, many of the Druze in the Golan Heights consider themselves to be Syrians. Only about 10 percent of the 22,000 there have accepted Israeli citizenship.

At the beginning of the fighting in Syria, most of the Druze in the Golan supported Assad.

“Assad has been very supportive of the Druze in the Golan,” Gid’on Abbas, a Druze former general in the Israeli army said. “But many Druze have gotten killed in the fighting in Syria, and there are a lot of mixed feelings. There have even been brawls in some villages between those who support Assad and those who oppose him.”

Abbas shared Dayan’s belief that the end of the Assad government is only a matter of time.

“He will not be able to continue indefinitely,” he said. “In the past few weeks, the different rebel groups have tried to band together and present an alternative to the regime.”

The fall of Assad presents both dangers and opportunities for Israel, say these analysts. Chaos is always dangerous, and cross-border terror attacks could spark a harsh Israeli response. Israel is also concerned that Syria could provide Hezbollah terrorists in south Lebanon with chemical weapons that could eventually be used against Israel.

Yet, at the same time, the current conflict could have benefits for Israel.

“From Israel’s point of view, it’s not a bad thing if the fighting in Syria lasts forever,” said Dayan. “Syria is becoming weakened economically, politically and socially, and it will never return to what it was. Hezbollah will also no longer have a godfather and help from Syria, which will weaken them as well.”

Abbas, the Druze leader, believes that if Assad falls, more Druze in the Golan Heights will ask for, and receive, Israeli citizenship.

“They will want to be more cemented to Israel than to Syria,” he said. “The residents of the Golan see and hear what’s happening on the other side. They see so many civilians getting killed and there is a feeling that there is no control. Nobody even knows who’s against whom anymore.”

The Arab Spring springs surprises


When a popular uprising started in Tunisia less than two years ago, it took the world by surprise. Not many observers had anticipated the outbreak, let alone the success, of popular uprisings in a region far better known for the longevity of its tyrants and despots.

Contrary to what some analysts have stated, the region loosely known as “the Arab world” had in fact seen important, albeit failed, uprisings: the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolt against Hafez Al-Assad’s regime in Hama, Syria, was brutally put down in 1982. The mass uprisings in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 were crushed just as mercilessly by the Saddam Hussein regime.

This time, however, it was different. The Tunisians succeeded with breathtaking speed in overthrowing Zine El-Abidine’s dictatorial and corrupt regime. But what turned those events into something really unique in the modern Arab world was the domino effect which followed. Shortly after the Tunisians won their battle with their government, there ensued a confrontation between the Egyptians and their own government. Before long, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down. The ripple effect of those cataclysmic developments was subsequently felt in other Arab countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, later, Syria.

Despite the apparent similarities noted in the Arab rebellions taking place in the Middle East, there were nevertheless some notable differences in the way the uprisings happened in the aforementioned Arab countries: the relatively benign dictatorships-Tunisia and Egypt- collapsed much more easily than did the far more ruthless tyrannies in Libya and Syria. One reason may be that Zine El-Abidine’s regime in Tunisia was caught napping by the sudden nature of the revolt in that country. And while Hosni Mubarak’s regime had some forewarning of the possibility of similar developments taking place in Egypt, this was not early enough for members of the Egyptian political elite to successfully contain and defuse the situation.

By contrast, the Qaddafi regime had ample time to prepare for such an eventuality, and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad had even more time than Qaddafi’s to brace itself for a similar insurgency occurring in Syria. Coupled with the horrifically brutal nature of both of these regimes, the spread of the “Arab Spring”, as it came to be known, lost momentum. Despite some initial successes achieved by anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya, the tide was turned fairly quickly as Qaddafi’s forces rallied to roll back the rebels’ advance speedily and efficiently. Before long, Qaddafi’s fighters had overcome the rebels in Zawiya, laid siege to Misrata, and beaten the eastern region’s rebels from near Sirte, his own birthplace, all the way back to my own city, Benghazi. Terrified and thrown into panic by the merciless, ruthless nature of Qaddafi’s threats and his declared intention of vindictively seeking out his enemies “street-by-street, alley-by-alley, house-by-house”,  France, along with the United Kingdom and, after some hesitancy, the United States successfully obtained the Arab League’s consent to a possible aerial intervention in Libya in order to protect civilians from what looked like a potentially hair-raising massacre not very different from what had happened in Srebrenica in the ex-Yugoslavia back in the 1995. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States also succeeded in persuading reluctant members of the United Nation’s Security Council, most notably Russia and China, of the need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The French, the British, and the Americans also took advantage of the wording of UN Resolution 1973, especially one of the points authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, to justify the active, pre-emptive aerial attacks against the Qaddafi regime. The famous French air attack on Qaddafi’s lethal forces on the outskirts of Benghazi in March 2011 achieved the goal of preventing a large scale massacre of civilians in that city. Consequently, Qaddafi’s forces quickly retreated all the way back to Sirte. Buoyed up by such speedy withdrawal, the eastern rebels advanced just as speedily all the way to an area not very far from Sirte, while exuding their newly-found confidence that the Qaddafi regime would crumble in few weeks or less.  That, of course, did not materialize, and the Libyan conflict entered thereafter a phase of prolonged stalemate which lasted for many months before the Qaddafi regime collapsed in the city of Tripoli and Qaddafi himself was captured and killed near his hometown of Sirte in October 2011.

Once the Syrian people saw what was happening in other Arab countries, and how France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were striving for intervention in the Libyan conflict, they plucked up enough courage to launch mass protests against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. This began when protesters called for the “Friday of Dignity” and Syrians initiated their first serious challenge against their own government. Unlike the Libyans before them, the Syrian protesters did not want outside intervention and were intent on fighting the Assad regime alone. When it gradually dawned on the Syrian rebels that overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was not as feasible as they had imagined, they little by little started to have second thoughts concerning the idea of requesting external armed involvement.

Nonetheless, this time the situation in Syria was significantly different from the Libyan situation: First, both Russia and China objected to outside intervention à la Libyan case. Second, important regional players such as Iran, along with organizations like Hizbollah in Lebanon, backed up the Syrian regime and reportedly propped it up with arms, financial, personnel, and diplomatic support. Third, despite the longtime enmity between Israel and Syria, the Israelis, and quite a few of their American supporters, balked at the idea of Syria being run by an actively anti-Israeli, perhaps theocratic, government should the Assad regime disintegrate. After all, both Bashar Al-Assad and his father before him often barked at Israel, but they never did much biting. The anxiety concerning a possible Islamist takeover in Syria was compounded by the early results of regime change in the Arab Spring: Major Islamist successes in Tunisia and Egypt, and significant Islamist influence in Libya’s post-Qaddafi politics, scared outside powers which feared that, yet again, the “Arab Spring” in Syria could very well lead to an “Islamist winter”.

The differences between Libya’s situation and that of Syria did not emerge only in terms of geopolitical dynamics, but also extended to include internal differences: To an extent far greater than the national makeup of Libya, Syria’s is a mosaic of various religions, sects, and ethnic groups: Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and so forth. These groups had been held together by Hafez Al-Assad and later his son Bashar. If the son’s regime were to collapse, it is not inconceivable that this might bring about the fragmentation of the country, resulting in extensive massacres. The relations between Muslims and Christians in Syria are already very tense, as are many of those between Syria’s other ethnic and sectarian groups. But the Syrian regime’s most-intensely feared scenario is the fate of the Alawite minority, to which Bashar Al-Assad belongs. The end of their tight grip on power could very easily become a prelude to their mass murder at the hands of other groups, especially the Sunnis who have long resented being governed and oppressed by the Alawites. This is one of the most important reasons why the Bashar Al-Assad regime is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to power: what is at stake is not merely the regime’s survival, but above all that of the whole Alawite sect.

Having previously worked for several years as a university professor of political science, I am fully aware that forecasting in the area of international politics is a very difficult undertaking; there are far too many unknown quantities and variables involved for this to be easily doable. All the same, it does look at the moment as if the Syrian situation will continue to be a war of attrition, with neither side being able to gain the upper hand in a decisive and conclusive manner. One is then left wondering whether this might lead to yet another “Lebanon”.


Husam Dughman’s family was both educated and liberal.  They heroically stood up to the Qaddafi regime and endured the dire consequences. This gave him a first-hand experience of what dictatorship, bigotry, and intolerance are about, and what kind of price has to be paid in order to stand up to them.  Coupled with his experience of religious intolerance, Mr. Dughman resolved to fight against zealotry, hate, and extremism, come hell or high water. Thus, the idea for Tête-à-tête with Muhammad began to germinate in his mind.

Husam Dughman was born in Libya and educated in Libya and the U.K. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where he won several awards for academic excellence and graduated with a First Class with Honours. In 1993, Mr. Dughman returned to Libya and was successful in securing a position as a university professor of Political Science. Due to political reasons, he left his university position in 1997 and subsequently worked in legal translation. He immigrated to Canada in 2002, where he has been helping new immigrants with their settlement.

Dughman’s new book, Tête-à-tête with Muhammad, is available for purchase at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, as well as other online booksellers.  To learn more visit: http://www.husamdughman.com

Druze professor appointed Israeli envoy to New Zealand


A Druze professor was appointed Israel’s chief diplomat in New Zealand.

Naim Araidi, who teaches Hebrew literature at Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University, was named to the post by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Yediot Achronot reported.

“After years of representing the State of Israel unofficially, it would be a great privilege for me to do so in an official capacity and show Israel’s beautiful side, as well as the coexistence that despite all the hardships can only be maintained in a true democracy,” the newspaper reported Araidi, 62, as saying.

Araidi is expected to replace Shemi Tzur later this year. Tzur was appointed in 2009, the first Israeli diplomat in New Zealand since 2002, when Israel’s embassy in Wellington was closed as part of global cost-cutting measures by Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Lieberman said Araidi’s appointment “represents the beautiful face of Israel, in which a talented person, irrespective of religion or sector, can reach the highest places on merit, and be an inspiration for all Israelis.”

A native of Kfar Marrar in the Galilee, Araidi won the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew Literature in 2008. He received his doctorate in Hebrew literature from Bar-Ilan. His poems have been published in more than a dozen languages.

Some 7,000 Jews live in New Zealand, mainly in Auckland and Wellington.

Araidi is not Israel’s first Druze ambassador; Walid Mansour was posted to Vietnam and Reda Mansour served in Ecuador.

Teen arrested after admitting to starting Israeli fire


A 14-year-old resident of the Druze village of Ussfiya was arrested after admitting to starting the fire that destroyed much of the Carmel Forest.

The teen reportedly said he was smoking a nargila water pipe and threw a live coal into an open area before returning to school.

The arrest was announced hours after two teenage brothers from the same village arrested over the weekend on suspicion of negligence in starting the fire were released from detention by a Haifa court. The teens had been accused of lighting a bonfire near their home that sparked the blaze.

Also Monday, the number of Israelis killed in the fire rose to 42 with the death of Haifa Police Chief Ahuva Tomer.

Thousands attended the Monday afternoon funeral of Tomer, the police chief since March 2009 and the highest-ranking female officer in the Israel Police.

She was burned over 90 percent of her body last week after trying to assist prison guard cadets riding in a bus that caught fire while on its way to evacuate a prison in the path of the blaze. Most of the bus passengers and three volunteer rescuers died in the fire in northern Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday ordered the Finance Ministry to provide nearly $700 immediately to each member of families who will be prevented from returning to their damaged homes for at least the next month.

The funds are designated for basic, emergency necessities such as clothing and shoes, and school supplies.

The allocation came during a special Knesset hearing on the fire and its consequences, which opened with a moment of silence.

Later in the day, Netanyahu ordered the creation of a national firefighting command under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office.

He also appointed Netanya Mayor Miriam Fierberg to head a task force in charge of managing assistance for those whose homes were damaged in the fires.

Culinary and cultural riches await visitors to the Galilee


I have to admit, although I run the risk of being politically incorrect, whenever I’d drive through Galilean roads and pass Arab towns or villages, a slight fear sometimes gripped me. Since the level of distrust among Jews and Arabs has increased since the intifada, I suspect most Israelis would probably think twice before entering an unfamiliar Arab town to catch a bite or change a tire.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. A walking tour within non-Jewish towns and villages — with or without guides — can be an eye-opening, informative, tasty and heart-warming experience. On a recent tour in the Galilee focusing on different religions in the Western Galilee, I meandered through Muslim, Christian and Druze towns, as well as Baha’i landmarks, only to discover cultural richness, friendliness — and some surprises.

Olive Country

We began the tour at the visitors’ center of the only Jewish olive press in the lower Galilee, Avtalion, named after the tannaitic sage who migrated there after the destruction of the Second Temple. A quaint cafe serving olive oil-rich, Arab-style foods overlooks the never-ending groves of olive trees belonging to the Arab town of Arabe, which is part of the “axis of olives” that includes Sakhnin, Deir Hanna, Marah and Rama.

Avtalion offers year-round tours, tastings and lectures on the production and health benefits of olive oil. The olive season begins in October, and visitors are invited to witness the process.

Owner Peretz Elbaz assured me that visiting Arab towns and villages for food and shopping can be a safe and pleasant experience.

I felt only a mild, probably self-imposed tension as our bus passed through the commercial thoroughfare of Arabe, but even more than that, I felt a certain voyeurism. Arab towns always seemed impenetrable, not necessarily because of cultural tensions, but because they look like mazes from afar.

Our tour guide, Morris Zemach, author of “Traveling With Morris in the Galilee,” slammed the myth that Arabe residents are stingy and not friendly. But we didn’t stop to find out.

We continued to Dier Hana, a mixed Muslim-Christian town named after Yochanan’s (John’s) Monastery, which thrived during the Byzantine period. The town features some of the country’s oldest olive trees, and every home here used to have a working olive press, before industrialization made them obsolete.

“Many Jews don’t like to come here,” Zemach explained as we stood under an Ottoman stone gate where Muslim elders of the adjacent mosque often meet after prayers. “They’re afraid, but that comes from lack of knowledge. You can feel welcome to come on your own.”

Zemach, who is friendly with the locals, took us through a Muslim home whose backyard contains the remains of a Byzantine fortress built by Daher el Omar, Ottoman ruler of the Galilee in the 1700s. The residents, an elderly couple, didn’t seem to mind that we passed through, although when we left and wished them a good day, they didn’t exactly smile and wave back.

But gregariousness was not lacking with the Houris, a Christian family who have made their centuries-old olive press a tourist attraction.

Galilee

The father of the house, Mutlak, and his wife entertained us with a darbuka and violin; the music wasn’t exactly the most melodious, but it was endearing. The Houri family sells homemade olive oil and carob honey in the same room as their refurbished ancient oil press.

“The building is 1,500 years old, the press is 250 years old, and the donkey that pulls the press is 1,007 years old,” explained Mutlak with a joke he probably tells to all visitors.

Further northwest, in Kfar Yasif, Muslim, Christian and Druze communities open their mosques and churches to Jewish tourists. Jews lived here before the 19th century, and an ancient Jewish cemetery is hidden among dying weeds at the side of the main road, across the street from a Superpharm.

An ornate, medieval-style Greek Orthodox church is open to the non-Christian public, and nearby is an Evangelical church. The falafel and humus joints along the main road are said to be among the best in Israel.

Our tour guide, Amnon Gofer, encourages visitors to wander through the village, knock on doors, and have coffee or tea with the locals to find out more about the mutual respect between Christians and Muslims.

Lower Galilee

Avtalion Olive Press and Cafe: (04) 678-9521; www.avtalion-oil.net

The Houri Family: (050) 751-9597, (04) 678-4035

Kfar Yasif

Greek Orthodox Church: (054) 310-9023

Evangelical church: (04) 996-5461

The Great Mosque, Sheik Abbad: (050) 908-4020

Morris Zemach, the tour guide: (04) 693-6924, (052) 654-9191

Western Galilee Information Hotline: (700) 705-050

Druze Hospitality

The Chasidic man with payot walking around the Druze village of Sajur seems like an anomaly, but a Chasidic presence has existed in Sajur for the past five years — ever since Ibrahim Riad decided to make his family’s Druze restaurant kosher. The Riad’s eatery, The Sultan’s Feast, began in a handsome, Oriental living room. Ibrahim’s decision to go kosher was strictly a business decision, and a smart one at that — the place was filled with a religious tourist group.

Mrs. Riad and her children are the chefs, making fresh, authentic Druze dishes like majadra, a dish of chickpeas, lentils and bourgal; and “groom rice,” with meat and cinnamon, served to a Druze groom on his wedding night to give him “strength.”

Ibrahim, who served as an Israel Defense Forces army officer for 25 years, has three sons serving in the army, and his sweet, well-spoken daughters were on hand to provide us with some insight into the restaurant, the village, and the basics of the Druze faith.

Further west, in the Druze village of Julis, more insight into the Druze faith can be provided by Nabia Tarif, the grandson and personal assistant of Sheikh Amin Tarif, the “Lubavitcher rebbe” of the Druze community. Sheikh Tari was given the rare Druze privilege of a private burial place, which is now a Druze holy place.

“During his tenure as head of the community, there wasn’t any split within the Druze community,” Nabia Tareef explained, bearing a noble stature, Druze headdress, friendly smile and sparkling blue eyes.

Mideast An Understanding Teacher


Jewish and Arab youth visit Yad Vashem as part of a course onthe Holocaust run by the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum at Kibbutz LahameiHageta’ot. Photo by Isaac Harari

 

It’s a hot summer day and 16 teen-agers are walking through YadVashem in Jerusalem with a handful of adults. The scene is acommonplace one until you look a little closer and listen morecarefully. Half of the group is speaking softly in Arabic amongthemselves and they come from villages with names like Julis and KfarYassif. The Arab and Druze teens in the group, as well as the Jewishones, are wearing long white T-shirts displaying the name of theGhetto Fighters’ House and the word “guide” printed in large blockletters across the back.

The group’s tour is the culmination of a year-long after-schoolprogram that teaches Arab, Druze and Jewish high school studentsabout the Holocaust. All 113 participants volunteered for theprogram.

“What happened to the Jews — this painful thing —made me feel I had to know more,” said Rania Sakas, 17, from KfarYassif. “I knew the Holocaust happened, but I didn’t understand itsenormity. I didn’t realize how many innocent people died and how hardit was for the Jews.

“Before this workshop, I identified with the Jews, but now Iunderstand more about their pain,” she said.

Rania, along with 19 other students from Kfar Yassif, 24 from theDruze village of Julis, 39 from Akko and 30 from kibbutzim in thenorth, spent one afternoon a week from October to March studyingabout the Holocaust at the Ghetto Fighters’ House in Kibbutz LohameiHageta’ot. At the end of the program, those who wished continued onfor four day-long sessions during the summer in which Druze, Arab andJewish students learned together about subjects not heretoforecovered, such as Holocaust denial and the Armenian genocide.

The project is the brainchild of Raya Kalisman, a former historyteacher and school principal from Misgav. She said this is the firsttime in Israeli history that Arab youth are learning about theHolocaust (aside from the little bit they learn in 11th grade fortheir matriculation exams).

During a sabbatical year in Washington D.C., Kalisman volunteeredat the U.S. National Holocaust Museum in a project that taught theHolocaust to African-American high school students.

“I saw what the program did for these kids, and I thought, if thisis so successful with children who have no connection with Israel,why not try it here?” she said.

The Holocaust Museum staff was excited about Kalisman’s idea andis supporting the project — though not financially. TheMinistry of Education paid Kalisman’s salary for a year while she setup the project and for the project’s inaugural program. Next year,her salary will be paid by the Ghetto Fighters’ House and the projectwill be subsidized by a grant from the Abraham Fund, which supportsArab-Jewish co-existence programs.

“We have to learn about the past in order to fix the future,” saidRachelle Schilo, director of the Abraham Fund’s Israel office. “TheHolocaust and its humanistic ramifications can help all of usunderstand the dangers of racism.”

At first, Kalisman did not know if high school students wouldrespond. “Teachers told me that kids wouldn’t come out in theafternoons,” she said. But after all the ninth graders in Julisvisited Yad Hayeled, the new children’s memorial at the GhettoFighters’ House, half of them volunteered.

“They hardly knew anything” before that first visit, Kalismansaid. “Yad Hayeled is a living museum that tells the story of theHolocaust to children from the point of view of children. We don’tuse much written material. Visitors listen to tapes from children’sjournals, children’s voices, video tapes of adults telling aboutthemselves as children during the Holocaust,” she added. After theexhibit, visitors participate in a workshop such as creative writing,drama or the plastic arts in order to integrate and express what theyjust saw.

Those who participated in the afternoon program also learned touse the Internet at the Oranim Teachers’ Seminary and communicatedthrough electronic mail with African-American children learning aboutthe Holocaust in Washington D.C. Kalisman hopes to someday bring thetwo groups together.

The highlight for students and teachers alike was the graduationceremony, during which the graduates guided their families around YadHayeled and exhibits at the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum.

“It was amazing to see these kids guiding their families, theirteachers, their friends. It gave them a lot. Each one seemed 10centimeters taller,” said Tzvika Oren, a teacher in the program.

“My mother cried at the graduation,” said Samahar Khirbawi, 16, ofJulis. “She said she didn’t know it would be so interesting andspecial.”

The graduates will escort younger classes from their schoolsthrough the museum next year. At the Holocaust Museum in Washington,the African-Americans who finish the course work become paid guides,but Kalisman said that is a luxury she does not have.

“Until now it was a taboo subject,” she said. “The Arabs said thatbringing up the Holocaust was manipulative and the Jews felt theydidn’t want Arabs to touch the Holocaust because it is holy and theywould politicize it. But we feel this is the way to real co-existence — learning together, discussing together. Because the story ofthe Holocaust is so strong, it opens the possibility for realdialogue.”

It seems clear that the Arab participants gain a greatersensitivity to the Jewish past and to Jewish pain. Said Khalil Ayoub,15, of Akko: “Everything I learned here helps me respect Jews aspeople. Before, I didn’t talk much with Jews. I didn’t have muchcontact. Now, when I meet a Jew, I speak to him, maybe even take aphone number. I see them as people. That’s what I learned from thiscourse — to respect people.”