Majdal Shams
The town of Majdal ShamsGareth Platt

Houses poke out of the foothills of Mount Hermon like brightly painted faces. They are illuminated by fingers of light.

Majdal Shams is the largest Syrian-Druze town in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights and this week many of the 11,000 members of the religious minority flocked to the streets in protest of the fate of their fellow Druze who are under threat by jihadi insurgents who have surrounded their towns in Syria.

Salman Fakhreddin has been watching tensions between the Sunni Muslim branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Syrian Army escalate.

The human rights activist has a view from a corner window of his living room in Majdal Shams.

At night, the phosphorescence from the illuminated tracer rounds from machine gun fire near the Druze village of Hadar glow through the window.

He said the population in towns and villages in the southern parts of Syria near the buffer zone with Israeli-controlled territory were teeming with Syrians who had fled their homes. The population had ballooned from 500,000 to one million.

Who are the Druze?

The Druze are a 10th-century branch of Shiite Islam. Followers live in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. In each country, the Druze swear allegiance to the government and serve in its armed forces.

He added the Druze in Syria in villages such as Hadar and Sweyda preferred to stay in their homes and defeat Jabhat al-Nusra if they were attacked instead of becoming refugees.

"When Syrians tried to cross in to the Golan in 2011 they were killed in a very brutal way by Israel, more brutal than Assad," he said.

Last week, Jabhat al-Nusra used tanks and artillery seized from a Syrian base to surround a cluster of Druze villages near the buffer zone with Israel. A move that Druze journalist and broadcaster Hamad Awidat said was strategic as they cannot be attacked in territory inside the buffer zone.

"One of Nusra's targets is to create a geographical bridge to the Qalamoun fights so they can support other militant groups with fighters and weapons," Awidat said.

Fighting edged close to Hadar last week after clashes in Jabbata, south of Hadar near the Quneitra Crossing and Bait Jin in the north east. On 11 June, 20 Syrian Druze were killed by Jabhat al-Nusra. In a statement two days, later the group expressed regret for the killings saying they had been carried out without authorisation.

A divided land

Off the main road outside of Majdal Shams, a steep dirt track swings to the right leading toward the buffer zone and ceasefire fence between Israel and Syria. Deep red cherries drip from trees in the orchards that are punctuated by abandoned fields with overgrown dried grass fenced off with barbed wire and small signs warning of the danger of land mines. Despite it being an agricultural area, Israel has not removed the mines in case of another war.

Israel captured the majority of the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War in 1967 splitting the Druze community. The ceasefire fence was built in 1981 when Israel annexed the Golan Heights.

Today, the land heading toward the buffer zone with Israel's uncleared mine fields and the ripe fruit of the Syrian Druze are a reminder that Israel and Syria are still officially in a state of war. United Nations peacekeepers were tasked with patrolling the buffer zone between Syrian and Israeli forces but abandoned their posts when the civil war escalated and are now in bases on the Israeli side.

Druze in the occupied Golan Heights mostly refuse to become Israeli citizens and passport holders and identify themselves as Syrian, while those inside Israeli towns and cities outside of the Golan do identify as Israelis and some serve in the Israel Defence Forces.

Greetings across the divide

In theory, telecommunications are prohibited but tell this to the Druze families arriving in cars, four-wheel drive vehicles and on horseback waving the five-coloured Druze flags proudly as they come to watch and message their family members caught up in the attacks drawing closer to Hadar.

Amira, 53, a Druze woman wearing traditional Druze clothing – a long black dress and a white head cover called a mandil – stands looking out over the town she was born in. She spoke to her sister on the phone this morning.

Her sister was trapped inside her house with her family as fighting escalated and became closer. She left Hadar 27 years ago when she married, separating her from her family in Syria. She said her sister's husband died two months ago but would not say if it was while fighting.

"My heart is racing, it's very hard standing here and seeing what's happening to them.
"I pray for them every day and I message them on Whatsapp and phone them," Amira said.

Druze families used to travel to the "shouting hill" near Majdal Shams in the buffer zone separating the Israeli and Syrian-controlled territory when they wanted to communicate. They would "meet" at a point on either side of the steel ceasefire fence and shout to each other through megaphones. Today, people only do this if there's a wedding or if they want to see each other using binoculars.

These days, families ply each other with mobile phone updates via Whatsapp from the nearby Sheta hilltop. They stand watching thick dark clouds of smoke getting closer to the buffer zone as the deep thud of frequent artillery and tank cannon fire punctuated the skyline between hills, leaving clouds of black and light grey smoke.

The Druze people of Hadar are in lockdown as their family watch several sets of fire hit the town. The only Druze leaving Hadar are armed Druze fighters taking it upon themselves to help defend the community. Druze historically fought with Assad's forces, the Syrian Arab Army, but lately Druze in Hadar, who saw a lack of practical support on the ground, decided to keep their fighters at home to defend themselves.

After Assad's forces lost control of the governorate that surrounded Hadar, the fear is the 700,000 Druze making up Syria's third largest minority group will be persecuted in the same way the Yazidis and the Christians have been by Islamic State (Isis). The Sunni rebel groups see Druze as offshoots of Shi'ite Islam and consider them to be infidels.

Seeking Israeli intervention

Some of the youth gathered on Sheta hilltop were peacefully demonstrating against the attacks on thee Druze in Syria and calling on Israel to support them.

They remained sceptical about Israeli intervention because Israel's military has provided tactical support to groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. According to the UN, disengagement forces in the Golan and local Druze, Israel are helping the Nusra fighters and have documented IDF handing over packages believed to contain weapons.

The IDF has also treated more than 2,000 critically wounded Syrians picked up along the border line in hospitals along the Galilee. The wounded are not screened and some have been civilians but many have been rebel fighters.

A 20-year-old dentistry student from Haifa who gives his name as Waed balances a pair of binoculars and a cigarette in one hand and a Druze flag in the other as he stands on the hilltop looking toward Hadar.

He says: "I have 12 family members over there including my grandmother and uncles. They can't leave their houses and food is becoming scarce. They are not afraid because Druze believe in their hearts that they will leave it all up to god."

Rabia Tafish is a 40-year-old man from Mas'ade in the occupied Golan Heights. He holds his hands over the ears of his one-year-old son Jaim as the booms rattle him. Tears form in the corner of his son's eyes.

Tafish tells IBTimes UK that he has been in telephone contact with his family who are trapped in their house.

"There is a siege around them, they are firing on them from all sides," he said. "I don't believe Israel will get involved."

Growing refugee crisis

There are around 140,000 Druze in Israel and the occupied Golan Heights, the Galilee and other parts of Israel, and many of them have called on the Israeli government to accept Syrian Druze refugees to Israel and provide humanitarian and military assistance.

Druze from the Galilee and the occupied Golan united in protest this week to put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene in a war Israel has stayed out of.

Netanyahu said Israel would closely follow the situation on the border. "My inclination is to take any action that is necessary," he said.

However, in a written statement to IBTimes UK the Israel Defense Forces said it would "maintain a policy to non-involvement in the Syrian civil war in a need to protect Israeli civilians".

IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot contradicted this statement, telling Israeli media Israel would act to prevent a massacre.

Ayoub Kara, a senior Druze leader and deputy minister for regional affairs in the Israeli government, said he visited Jordan last week to try and negotiate a safe passage for Druze. He added he would soon be doing the same in Turkey.

In the past, Israeli officials have said the country may be able to absorb some Syrian Druze refugees whose lives were at risk but these plans have not come to pass. Not yet anyway.