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Israel says asked Syrian rebels not to harm Druze

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Monday it had made humanitarian aid to select Syrian rebel groups on its border conditional on their undertaking not to harm the Druze minority in the country’s civil war.

Members of the Druze community carry flags as they run towards the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams, in this June 16, 2015 file photos. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files

The Nusra Front, an al Qaeda off-shoot hostile to Syrian Druze, was not among rebels getting Israeli help, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told lawmakers.

Enraged by rumors Nusra fighters might be among the hundreds of Syrians admitted for medical treatment on the Israeli-held Golan Heights, Druze groups last week attacked two ambulances bringing in civil war casualties, killing one.

Druze Arabs in Syria have long been loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and their brethren in Israel and the Golan, captured in 1967, have been lobbying the 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.

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.

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

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”.

Netanyahu told Israel’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on Monday that Israel does not assist Nusra Front, the panel’s spokesman said.

The defense 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 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”.

Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, the religious leader of Israel’s Druze, said the community had no desire for Israel to get involved in the Syrian war “but we will do all it takes to make sure our Druze brothers are not harmed,” he said.

Editing by Mark Heinrich; editing by Ralph Boulton