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Israel's state-Druze rift

by ISN Security Watch Sunday, Nov. 18, 2007 at 11:56 AM

Israeli Druze close association with the state is increasingly under threat with violent scenes in a Galilee village and protests over land confiscations.

16 November 2007

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (16/11/07)

A botched police raid in the predominantly Druze village of Peki'in has exposed a growing rift between Israel's Druze and the state, with potentially wide-ranging repercussions.

Israel's 118,000-strong Druze community lives largely in small villages and towns in the Galilee and constitutes a 2-percent minority within the wider Israeli population and 8.3 percent of the Arab-Israeli population, according to the latest government figures.

The Druze religion emerged as a reform movement within Ismaili Islam in 11th century Fatimid Cairo, holding to seven principles of faith - rather than the five pillars of Islam - and a belief in reincarnation. Adherents currently constitute significant minorities in Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.

Professor Kais Firro, an expert on the Druze community at Haifa University, told ISN Security Watch, "From 1948 the Israeli authorities tried to separate the Druze from the Arab community," imposing conscription in 1956.

These efforts included the separation of Druze and Arab-Israeli institutions, the establishment of a separate education system for Druze and "changing their identity card nationality from 'Arab' to 'Druze.' And this process continues until now," he said.


Alongside the ongoing efforts to drive a wedge between Druze and other Arab communities, persistent efforts have been made to draw the Druze into the national security structure and Zionist political sphere, with some success.

"We can find that about 25 percent [of Druze] employees are employed in the military services, the police and other security institutions," Firro said. "Among the Jewish population [the figure is] about 10 or 12 percent."

"The Druze opposition to the [conscription] law was very, very high," he explained, "but the Israelis imposed it by force. And then the Druze recognized the fait accompli."

Despite this "till now we can find some people who reject military conscription but, you know, the whole of the community wants to live and to build their salary and therefore the Druze integrated into the Israeli security forces," Firro said.

With Negev Bedouin increasingly unwilling to allow their sons to enter the military, the Druze now constitute the sole major Arab presence in the Israeli security services. Due to their command of Arabic, Druze soldiers play a key role in combat units in the West Bank and Gaza and in Israel's northern police district.

The Druze have traditionally provided significant support in national elections to both the Labor and Likud parties, though Firro cautions against generalizing with regard to political affiliation.

While these political ties have largely held through the gradual but progressive transition in Israeli-Arab identity politics towards greater symbolic association with the Palestinians, there have been signs in recent months of a significant developing rift.

Referring to Kadima, Labor and the Likud, the head of the Peki'in council, Mohammed Khir, told ISN Security Watch, "It is assured that the Druze will vote much less for the big parties. People [Druze] inside and outside Peki'in no longer believe in the big parties that just talk and do nothing."

Land confiscations

Druze communities continue to suffer from established institutional discrimination against Arab communities in official planning, non-security civil service employment, permits and resource allocation.

This problem is recognized by the government and is at the heart of the current debate on the role of the Jewish National Fund in land management.

There are indications that Druze patience has come to an end. A battle is brewing near Haifa between the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and residents of Daliyat al-Carmel-Issifiya over the status of surrounding forests. This struggle reached new heights this summer in a series of arson attacks, the blocking of roads with logs and INPA equipment confiscations and allegations of illegal logging.

The authorities "wanted to annex some of the private lands of the Druze to this part of the Carmel," Firro explained. "The relationship now is very, very bad between the population of Daliyat al-Carmel-Issifiya and the authorities […] You can find local committees that have begun to be organized by the Druze in order to stop this policy."

In comments carried by Haaretz, the chair of the Protection of Carmel Lands association, Fahmi Halabi, warned: "The INPA people, who mean to take the last pound of flesh that the people have, are the enemy. We recommend that they not enter the city."

Golan settlement expansion

Around 20,000 residents of four Druze villages in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights are entitled to permanent residency in Israel, although many retain Syrian citizenship or identification, refusing to recognize the unilateral 1981 Israeli annexation of the territory.

This community maintains greatly reduced links with their extended families in Syria, with many tertiary students traveling to Syria for their studies. However, cross-border marriages and traditional socio-economic ties have been sharply attenuated by the Israeli occupation and resultant armed standoff.

Successive Israeli governments have chosen to focus settlement building activities elsewhere, but a turning point appears to have been reached with the 2005 Gaza evacuations and 2006 Lebanon War. Recent efforts have been made to double the circa 20,000-strong Jewish population of the Heights within the next decade.

In the wake of the Lebanon War, Jewish settlement leaders launched a US0,000 advertising campaign to lure Jews to the Heights. Around 400 Jewish families are moving to the Golan each year, according to the Washington Post.

The presence and expansion of Israeli settlements on the Golan is adamantly opposed by local Druze leaders but has largely been ignored by the Israeli media and peace movements.

The Battle for Peki'in

The recent sharp escalation in tensions between the state and Druze reached new heights recently with disturbances in Peki'in. Over 30 were injured in a day of rioting, including several police officers and three villagers shot with live rounds.

The disturbances flared after a large police force entered the village in the early hours of 30 October in response to the burning of a cellular phone tower situated at a nearby residence in Jewish New Peki'in. Druze villagers had repeatedly asked the owner to remove the tower, linking its presence to high cancer rates.

Subsequent footage showing hooded men trashing property at a Jewish residence - seemingly after the police withdrawal - inflamed racial tensions and led to comparisons in the Israeli press with the 2000 race riots in the north.

"Peki'in was one of the worst event in the state [history]; policemen are coming to arrest 12 kids at 3.30am […] for breaking an antenna," Khir said. They used teargas and stun grenades. People that woke up and went outside to see what's going on got beaten up and kicked by the police," he said.

The botched police raid led to calls from Arab legislators for the sacking of the district police chief. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert moved quickly to consult with Druze leaders and police commanders in a bid to prevent a fresh outbreak of violence. However, his government has ruled out an official state inquiry to supplement an ongoing police probe.

Jewish resident Ilan Schecter, whose family has lived in the village for centuries, told ISN Security Watch that the police should have called the heads of the Druze community demanding they hand over the arsonists: "They [police] could have solved it like this but they didn't want to, they wanted to solve it by force. Pity."

Ulterior motives

It is gradually coming to light that the Peki'in riot had a more disturbing undercurrent that could signal a new trend in Jewish settlement patterns in the Galilee, provoking a major spike in racial tensions.

Druze blame the recent strife on several new Jewish residents, who have allegedly settled in Peki'in with an aggressive right wing agenda.

Haaretz reported Thursday that two right-wing Jewish groups with close ties to the West Bank settlement movement had been buying properties adjacent to the ancient synagogue in the heart of the village with an eye to inserting a hard-line Jewish presence.

The settler organizations were identified by the Hebrew daily as the Lower Galilee Association and Peki'in Forever. The former purportedly has ties to legislator Moshe Feiglin, a settler activist whose Jewish Leadership faction has emerged as a far-right competitor to the Likud leadership in internal party elections.

Relating to the newcomers, Schecter said, "They came with a different mentality, with a different culture […] Unfortunately they used to walk around and talk about the need to free Peki'in."

"It made the locals very unhappy: 'They are coming to our place, what have we done for them to come here and treat us like that,'" Schecter explained.

He added that the new Jewish residents were also riding roughshod over the village's small established Jewish community, seeking control of the ancient synagogue: "They did it to me and I am from their own people. They wanted to take control of the property of the old Jewish community," he said.

"They want the Jewish property and even the spring in the center of the village. This always belonged to Peki'in and suddenly they want to make it part of the Jewish property," Khir added.

The Lower Galilee Association has allegedly paid up to five times the true value of the four properties to secure ownership, repeating a tactic honed by settlement groups in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

A researcher who has been conducting interviews with residents of the village from all sides, and asked that his identity be protected, revealed to ISN Security Watch that two of four houses purchased by the two associations from Christian owners were burnt by Druze after they had driven police from the village.

Villagers report that rising tensions in the village had been punctuated by a series of stun grenade attacks on Jewish residences.

A Lower Galilee Association activist burnt out in the riots related to Haaretz that he had hosted tourists and a small youth group from the far-right Kfar Tapuach settlement in his house, accusing villagers of instigating a pogrom.

A radical Jewish youth who was lynched after murdering four Arab-Israelis on a bus in nearby Shfaram in August 2005 stayed in Tapuach before his attack.

With the government openly backing efforts to bolster the Jewish population of the Galilee and Negev, similar clashes in predominantly Arab-Israeli towns and villages in the north appear inevitable and are likely to be exacerbated by any future withdrawals from West Bank settlements.

The unequivocal backing given Peki'in residents by Druze leaders, and questions raised concerning the community's commitment to military and police service following the riot are clear signs that the state-Druze relationship is increasingly at risk.

"The trust was damaged because of the bad treatment of the government and authorities," Khir said, adding, "The situation is boiling, but it is as if we are living in a different country."

Asked if fewer Druze would now go to the army, Khir said, "I'm certain of it."

"We established the State of Israel alongside the Jews. What happened? Only 60 years have passed and the Jews already want to betray the Druze.

Efforts to contact members of the two Jewish associations active in Peki'in were unsuccessful.

Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

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