Druzes of Israel and the Golan Heights

Location: Galilee, Mt Carmel, Golan Heights
Population: 72,000 in Israel, 15,000 in Golan Heights
% of population: 1.5% of Israeli population
Religion: Druze
Language: Arabic, Hebrew

The Druze are a small Arab minority in Israel, part of a much larger Druze community in southern Syria and mountainous central Lebanon who form about 7% and 5% of the total populations respectively. Their religion originated in eleventh-century Egypt as a schism of a splinter of the Shi’ite branch of Islam. They do not recognize Mohammmed as the Prophet nor do they accept the infallibility of the Koran. Because of this many Orthodox Muslims consider them heretics and in response the Druze have developed a closed society, where knowledge of their beliefs is restricted both inside and outside the community and where intermarriage with other communities results in ostracism from the Druze community. There are probably about 72,000 Druze in Israel proper and another 15,000 residing in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Within Israel’s 1967 borders Druze reside mainly in 17 traditional Druze villages, all in Galilee except for two in Mt Carmel. Formerly a farming and herding people the pressure of population (they have one of the highest birthrates in the world) has forced Druze men to look for work elsewhere such as the docks in Haifa, while a small group has moved south to Eilat. There are now roads leading to formerly isolated villages which are served by electricity and drinking water. Before 1948 there was 95% illiteracy; today there is an elementary school in each settlement and several secondary schools. Women still lead a largely secluded lifestyle and factories have been established in Druze villages to employ them. Like other Palestinian Israelis, the Druze live an uneasy compromise between their traditional values and the pressures of life in a comparatively westernized state and in some respects, such as their acceptance of the authority of community elders, they are more traditional than other Palestinian groups.

Druzes within Israel are Israeli citizens, although like other Arabs they do not have all the rights accorded to Jewish-Israelis. As one of the “minority communities” recognized by the Israeli government — others include Beduin, Christians and Circassians — Druzes are differentiated from other Israeli Arabs. In 1957 the Israeli government recognized the Druzes as a separate and independent religious community, in 1961 the spiritual leadership was recognized as a Religious Council and in 1962 Druze Courts, which handle matters of personal status for Druzes, were established.

Druze villages get government grants well below the levels given to Jewish-Israeli settlements and marginally higher than other Palestinian settlements. After complaints from some Druze the method of allocating grants was changed in the late 1970s and this has made the grants level per capita in Druze villages rise substantially. In addition Druzes receive individual grants and loans available to ex-servicemen (which in effect excludes most other Arab Israelis except some Beduin). They have also suffered land seizure as do other Palestinians; for example in Bayt Jann in 1987 there were angry clashes between Druze and police. Some younger Druze feel that few of the Druze community have gained high political or military rank and that they are considered to be second-class citizens by Jewish-Israelis. In April 1987 the Israeli government (Moshe Arens) publicly recognized that while it had preferred Druzes to other Palestinians it had not treated them equally with Jews.

The Israeli government has encouraged better treatment of the Druze than other Arabs and they are seen as more “loyal” to the Israeli state. Since 1955 Druzes have been conscripted (at the request of the Druze community) and serve in the Army, especially in certain outfits such as Border Guards, which has acquired a reputation for brutality in dealing with Palestinians in both Israel and the Occupied Territories. Druze women, unlike Jewish-Israeli women, do not have compulsory military service. Increasing numbers of Druze have refused to serve in the military and some have been jailed.

Druzes are generally perceived by Palestinians, whether living in Israel or the Occupied Territories, as collaborators. Many Israeli Druze feel that as a small heterodox minority group they have little choice but to ally themselves with whatever government is likely to protect them, their religion, culture and way of life. Not all would agree with this and during the 1970s the Mubadira (the Druze Initiative), a Rakah partydominated movement which opposed Zionism and put forward an aim of a non-Zionist state in which Arabs would enjoy equality, gained popularity. However in the 1980s it seems to have declined — perhaps because of Rakah’s dominating role.

Druze in the Golan Heights (on the northern sector of the border with Syria) have reacted very differently to Israeli rule. The Golan Heights was captured by Israel during the 1967 war, thus bringing some 8,000 Druze under Israeli military occupation. Some of the area was restored to Syria in 1974 but most remained with Israel thus splitting the Druze community. There was an agreement to allow family reunions under UN auspices but this collapsed in 1975. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in December 1981 but no country recognizes this annexation and therefore it remains, in international law, as Syrian territory.

During the Israeli initial occupation Druze were issued with Israeli military documents but after Israel annexed the Golan Heights, Druze were asked to return these to be replaced with Israeli identity cards (as carried by all Israeli citizens). Less than 50 Druze initially accepted the cards while 1300 handed them back. In early 1982 Druze in the Golan Heights started a strike against the imposition of cards and the annexation of the territory. The strike lasted for six months and during that time the Israeli army sealed off Druze villages from the outside world, allowing only those who wished to work in Israel to leave. A former Israeli Supreme Court judge claimed that striking Druze had been beaten, harassed and denied employment. There have been further protests and in 1986 a Druze was sentenced to six months’ prison under the law of sedition for singing “anti-Israeli, pro-Syrian songs” during a demonstration in 1985. There have also been claims that the Israeli state has expropriated Druze land and restricted Druze access to irrigation water.

(See also Beduin of Israel; Palestinians)