NABI SHUAIB SHRINE, Israel (AP) — An unprecedented attack by a mob of Israeli Druze villagers who snatched a wounded Syrian rebel from an Israeli ambulance in the Golan Heights and beat him to death reflects the spiraling anger among the Jewish state’s Druze minority, which has been pushing for the government to do more to help the Syrian Druze caught up in the neighboring country’s civil war.
The Druze, a religious sect that began as an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are among Israel’s most loyal citizens and serve in its military, although those living in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights have a more fraught relationship with the authorities.
But the Druze are also increasingly worried about the plight of their brethren in Syria and have been demanding action from the Israeli government in the wake of a massacre earlier this month of 20 Druze villagers in Syria, killed by Syria’s al-Qaida branch, the Nusra Front.
In the attack late Monday, dozens of Druze villagers swarmed an Israeli military ambulance carrying two wounded Syrian rebels, suspecting they were Islamic militants.
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The villagers pulled one of the Syrians from the vehicle and beat him to death. Two Israeli soldiers in the ambulance were also lightly wounded, and the other Syrian was evacuated to an Israeli hospital in critical condition. Earlier Monday, Druze villagers confronted another ambulance they believed was transporting wounded Syrian militants but that incident was quickly defused.
The Israeli Druze have been angered by the Israeli government’s policy of extending medical aid to wounded Syrian rebels, who are fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government — an archenemy of Israel. They suspect that some of those treated in Israel have been Islamic militants, such as those behind the massacre of the Druze in the Syrian province of Idlib.
The Israeli military has in the past denied that it is helping treat wounded Islamic militants fighting across the border and defense officials said the Syrians who were evacuated into Israel on Monday night were civilians. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss military actions with the media.
Israel’s estimated 130,000 Druze live mostly in the north of the country, where some have recently been taking to the streets, demanding more decisive action to help the Syrian Druze. Some have called for Israel to provide weapons and air support; others have proposed that thousands of Syrian Druze be allowed to take shelter inside Israel, if necessary, or that they themselves be allowed to cross the border and fight on behalf of the Syrian Druze.
“The Israeli state knows how to take care of its interest, and its interest in this case is not to let the Druze community be in a situation of genocide,” said Majali Wehbe, a former Druze member of Knesset.
Convening for an emergency meeting, the Druze leadership in Israel condemned the mob attack in the Golan.
Israeli police said “a mass” of people had attacked the ambulance and that the crowd threw stones at the vehicle. Video footage taken shortly after the incident showed an ambulance with its windshield smashed and Israeli forces keeping guard near a cordoned-off area.
The Israeli government insists it will not allow the Druze in Syria to be massacred, but has stopped short of definitive action, maintaining its policy of non-intervention in the conflict next door. Fighting occasionally does spillover and Israel has responded. It has also carried out a number of strikes on weapons convoys or caches it believes were destined to its enemy Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Lebanese militant group has sided with Assad’s troops in the civil war.
Analyst Stephane Cohen, a former liaison between the Israeli military and United Nations peacekeeping forces, said Israel has treated more than 1,600 Syrians since the conflict began in 2011. The wounded, a mix of civilians and rebels fighting the area, arrive at the frontier and Israeli military doctors pick them up for treatment at Israeli hospitals.
The Druze behind Monday’s attack on the wounded Syrians are part of the 22,000 members of the community who live in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. They have continued to identify themselves as Syrians, even after decades of Israeli rule that has seen them become fluent in Hebrew and integrated in Israeli society.
Few of the Golan Druze have taken Israeli citizenship — an option they were offered after Israel annexed the territory in 1981 — and have mostly backed Assad’s government, at least in public.
They stand in contrast to other, loyalist Druze in Israel who have a particularly tight bond with Jews that dates even farther back than helping them win independence in 1948. The Druze revere Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, whose tomb in northern Israel is one of their most sacred sites.
In recent days the community has enjoyed widespread solidarity from other Israelis — though that has partially been replaced by outrage after the attacks on military ambulances. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called the attack a “lynch” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu harshly condemned it and invited Druze leaders to a meeting on Wednesday in a bid to lower tensions.
“We will not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands. We will not allow anyone to disrupt Israeli soldiers in their missions,” Netanyahu said. “We will locate those who carried out this mob killing and bring them to justice. We are a country of law and are not a part of the anarchy that is spreading around us.”