(AFP) Hundreds of Druze in the Golan Heights marched Monday for Syrian independence day, carrying portraits of President Bashar Assad and chanting anti-Israel slogans.
“God save Syria!” they shouted as they rallied in the town of Masada. “Down with the occupation!”
Israeli officials say there are about 20,000 Druze on the strategic plateau, which the Jewish state captured from neighboring Syria in the 1967 Six Day War.
Israel extended its sovereignty over the 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of territory in 1981, although the move was never recognized by the international community.
The vast majority of Golan Druze have retained Syrian nationality.
The civil war which has ravaged Syria for the past six years is reflected in local divisions, with Masada opponents of the Assad regime refusing to march behind his picture.
But both sides are united in their opposition to Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, residents told AFP.
“We retain our Syrian identity and follow the path of national resistance,” said Nasser Ibrahim, one of the organizers of Monday’s march.
“With the crisis in Syria, Israel has increased its measures on the Golan,” said Assad opponent Ayman Abu Jabal, referring to what he called Israeli-ordered changes to the Golan school curriculum.
The Druze, who are spread out between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, have a reputation of being fiercely loyal to the country in which they reside.
Israel and Syria are still officially in a state of war, but Israel says it has no wish to get involved in the fighting.
It does, however, periodically carry out strikes against arms convoys heading to its Lebanese foe Hezbollah, which fights for Assad in Syria.
Last month, Israel struck what it said were Hezbollah targets in Syria, drawing Syrian anti-aircraft missile fire in the worst flare-up between the two governments since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.