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Israel’s Druze: Breaking the Israeli-Palestinian Binary?

Druze in Israel rally in support of their beleaguered Syrian kin (Getty Images 2015)

Druze in Israel rally in support of their beleaguered Syrian kin (Getty Images 2015)

On November 3, Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, launched an attack on loyalist forces in Khader, a small village in the Syrian-controlled section of the Golan Heights. While the conflict itself did not seem particularly noteworthy in the context of the ongoing disaster in Syria, the skirmish drew an immediate response from the country’s neutral southern neighbor.

Since the Syrian Civil War erupted during the regional Arab Spring of 2011, Israel has, with a few exceptions (most notably the 2012 Quneitra Governate clashes), opted against military involvement while subtlety working to mitigate Iran’s increasing influence in the Levant through Hezbollah and Assad.

“We have no interest in intervening in the civil war in Syria, either in favor of or against Assad…Our main issue is with the transfer of advanced weaponry from Syria to Lebanon, and so whenever we detect an attempt to smuggle weapons, we will act to prevent it we will not compromise on this issue,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said in March.

Thus, Israel’s threat of military intervention in defense of a small Golan village was something of an anomaly, but its eagerness to deploy the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) stem from Khader’s demographics—its predominantly Druze population introducing a new variable into the Jewish state’s military calculus.

The Druze are an ethnoreligious group whose faith has been described as an offshoot of Isma’ili Shia Islam, and since its establishment in the tenth century, the Druze religion has endured a litany of attacks by hegemonic homogenizers. Following the Druze people’s persecution under Fatimid Caliph Ali az-Zahir (1021-1036), which prompted a self-preserving “closing” of their faith, they adopted the practice of taqiyya (roughly translating to concealment and entailing a pragmatic adoption of Sunni pretenses), ventured beyond their bases in Egypt, and eventually survived and settled throughout the Levantine region.

While the twentieth-century introduction of nation-states divided the Druze between modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Israel-Palestine, individual communities have managed to maintain a collective identity that transcends borders and geopolitical factors.    

As the fighting transpired in Khader, Israeli Druze congregated in Majdal Shams, a town on Israel’s side of the Golan, and met with Yoel Strick, the head of the IDF’s Northern Command. After consulting with Sheikh Mowafak Abu Tariff, the primary Druze spiritual leader in Israel, the IDF issued a statement saying, “The IDF is prepared and ready to help the villagers and prevent damage or occupation of the village out of a commitment to the Druze population.”

In all probability, IDF officials never had any intention of risking Israeli lives by deploying ground troops. Rather, their motivations were twofold: first, they assumed that the mere threat of military escalation along the Syrian border would deter Jabhat al-Nusra from recklessly inciting violence along Israeli territory, and, second, they hoped that protecting Khader would please Israel’s 138,000 Druze citizens—especially the notoriously pro-Syrian Druze living within the Israeli Golan—who constitute two percent of its population.

Gdud Herev, a IDF famous homogenous Druze unit, was disbanded in 2015 at its soldiers’ request (IDF/Flickr 2012)

Gdud Herev, a IDF famous homogenous Druze unit, was disbanded in 2015 at its soldiers’ request (IDF/Flickr 2012)

Since 1956, the beginning of mandatory Druze conscription in the IDF, Israel has attempted to draw parallels between the Druze and the Jews by emphasizing a shared history of persecution by a Muslim other. Israeli intent was never subtle. In his 2001 piece, “Reshaping Druze Particularism in Israel,” Kais Firro, the head of the University of Haifa’s Druze Research and Archive section, cited the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Yaakov Shimoni, who argued in 1948 that the Druze “could create a lot of damage, stabbing a poisoned knife in the back of the Arab unity which [remained] intent on fighting [Israeli Zionists].”

However, one must note that Druze and other Arab communities share the same language, dress, food, and social hierarchies (with a few minor differences), which suggests that, before the 1948 inception of the Israeli state, the Druze were not inherently un-Arab as Israeli officials claimed. Furthermore, early Druze enlistment in the IDF was by no means representative of the population’s general will, but was realized through a controversial series of negotiations between Israeli and Druze officials.

Nevertheless, despite the somewhat questionable beginnings that laid the foundation for Druze-Israeli cooperation, contemporary Druze have displayed a willingness to operate as minorities within a predominantly Jewish-Israeli framework, and a 2008 survey conducted by the University of Tel Aviv reported that 94 percent of participating Druze identified as Druze-Israeli in a religious and national context.

However, some Druze—especially in light of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jewish nation-state bill—feel alienated within Israel’s social schema and have joined organizations such as “Refuse, Your Nation Will Protect You,” which encourages young Druze to refuse IDF conscription. Alaa Muhanna, the organization’s co-founder, defined the Druze as Palestinian and denounced Israel’s exploitation of the Druze to divide, weaken, and control its Arab population.

Ultimately, Muhanna’s opinions ostensibly seem to exist beyond the purviews of common Druze discourse, and, considering the plight of their Arab-Palestinian peers, it is unlikely that the Druze will defect from their position of relative advantage as Israel’s preferred, privileged ethnic minority.