MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights — From their hilltop cherry orchards, members of Israel’s minority Druze population come to watch and worry about their cousins in Syria, whose towns just a few miles away are now surrounded by jihadist rebels.
The Israeli Druze fear they are about to see a slaughter of their people unfold in Syria and are appealing to Israel and the international coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to intervene. Israeli officials made an appeal to the United States to protect the Druze, an ancient people whose esoteric faith combines elements of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, as well teachings from the Hindus and Buddha.
Israeli officials say they are monitoring the situation closely, but so far the tense skirmishes on the Syrian side involving the Druze have been limited.
Tell this to the young Druze men racing up and down the streets, on horseback and in all-terrain vehicles, waving Druze flags. Several hundred have begun to organize self-defense cadres of their own, mustering for weekend training sessions in small-arms tactics, taught by off-duty Israeli soldiers, ready to rush across the border to defend their religious cohorts in Syria.
After four years on the sidelines, the complex and violent dynamic in the Golan highlands threatens to draw Israel into the Syrian war as all sides — Syrian rebels, Israel, Syrian army, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, U.N. forces, Druze and the Americans — wait to see what happens next.
The 170,000 Druze living in Israel, most of them citizens and including many active Israeli soldiers and veterans, warn that any day now besieged Druze towns on the Syrian side will be stormed by rebels battling to topple Bashar al-Assad.
There is a mix of rebel troops jostling for position on the Syrian side of the Israeli border, including the more moderate Syrian Free Army, but also the al-Nusra Front and scattered units from the Islamic State. Both the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra and especially the Islamic State, worry the Druze, because the two Sunni militias consider the Druze, a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam, as infidels and defilers of Islam.
The al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, seized tanks and artillery from a Syrian army base two weeks ago. The tanks are now deployed around a cluster of Druze villages in Syria. In the past, the Druze have supported Assad, living under his protection, but now they fear they will be overrun. Their leaders are refusing to send more sons to enlist for Assad, saying they need fighters at home to protect their clans but also signaling their calculus that Assad is losing ground.
On Friday afternoon, artillery and tank cannon fire could be heard around the Druze town of Hader just across the border fence from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which Israel took control of after the 1967 war and annexed in 1981. U.N. peacekeepers assigned to patrol the buffer zone between Syria and Israeli forces have abandoned their posts and remain in barracks on the Israeli side.
Nothing and no one is stirring in Hader; not a single car appears on the roads, nor a farmer in the fields, though this is the height of the cherry harvest. Electricity to the Syrian town is cut off, and communication is spotty. Druze on the Israeli side have smuggled cellular phones and short-range radios to their fellow religionists in Syria. They report that families are stockpiling food and water and that men with arms have taken up positions to defend the town.
“We have fighters, but they don’t have weapons,” said Salem Milli, a Druze in the Israeli-occupied Golan who works as a home front commander and is preparing contingency plans for what to do if hundreds or thousands of Druze want to flee into the Israeli side of the Golan.
“Hader is a town in extreme danger,” said Yusef Rabah, a Druze Israeli from the Galilee area who spent 18 years in the Israeli army as a senior commander. “We fear there could be a massacre there the world will never forget.”
The Israeli Druze point to a report earlier this month, when more than 20 Druze were killed by the al-Nusra Front in a village in northwestern Syria, as a taste of what could come.
For its part, the Israeli government is stressing that it does not want to get involved in the Syrian civil war; at the same time Israel is warning combatants on the Syria side it will not permit a massacre of Druze on the border and will aid refugees if necessary.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, “We are intensely monitoring everything that happens on our borders,” but he is holding firm on Israel’s policy of keeping out of Syria’s civil war, except when it threatens to spill over and endanger Israelis.
The new chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, said he would protect Syrian Druze along the Israeli border but would not put his troops into the fight.
Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center, a think tank at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said he could not imagine a scenario that could lead Israel to intervene in the civil war in Syria on behalf of the Druze.
Israeli Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, a former national security adviser, said it is possible that Israel, without entering Syria itself, might assist the Druze.
“They are strong enough to help themselves, we do not have to fight for them, we have to help them protect themselves,” Dayan said.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.