Al-Ahram Weekly Online – 6 December 2001
Said Rabih received his letter from the army last March, shortly before his eighteenth birthday. Like thousands of other young Israelis, he was told that he was being called up for three years of military service.
But eight months later, Rabih is still a civilian and determined never to wear the uniform of his country’s army – even though he faces a lengthy jail sentence should the authorities catch up with him. And sooner or later they will. The next time he is stopped for a spot-check his identity card will give him away – clearly marked are both his date of birth and the word “Druze.”
Since 1956 Israel’s 80,000 Druze have been required by law to do military service alongside Jews. The country’s other Palestinian communities – Muslims, Christians and Bedouin – are exempted.
The Druze commitment to defend the Jewish state has long been taken for granted by Israelis. Like their co-religionists in Lebanon and Syria, the Israeli Druze have a strong tradition of being loyal above all else to the state in which they reside. Meanwhile, Israel’s other Palestinian citizens often accuse the Druze of being more Zionist than the Jews.
This has been reflected in the promotion of their statesmen. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed one of their number, Salah Tarif of the Labour Party, to the unity cabinet – the first Arab ever to reach such a senior position. And a Druze member of Sharon’s right-wing Likud Party, Magali Wahabe, recently became the first Arab civil servant to head a government department.
But many in the younger generation do not want to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Rabih, from the town of Shefaram in Al- Khalil says he has no desire to be loyal to Israel: not when it means killing his own people – the Palestinians – in the occupied territories.
“I got my call-up papers at the same time as my four best friends at school,” he says. “The others responded and all of them are now soldiers, including two who are fighting in Gaza.”
Rabih is one of a growing number of Druze teenagers refusing to serve in the army, even though they risk not only the harsh penalties meted out by the army’s Objectors’ Committee but also being isolated and ostracised in their own villages.
The current Intifada – with the huge toll it is taking on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – is severely straining a Druze unity that even survived Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the home of 300,000 Druze.
Last week, in a sign of the emerging divisions, senior political, religious and cultural Druze figures met in the village of Yirka, close to the border with Lebanon, to send a message to the Israeli government that their loyalty could no longer be counted on.
Joining them were Arab members of the Knesset, including Azmi Bishara, Mohamed Barakeh and Taleb a-Sanaa. A letter of support from Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat was also read out.
The convention follows a meeting earlier this year of the region’s Druze leadership in Amman, Jordan, at which the Lebanese and Syrian delegations put concerted pressure on the Israeli contingent. A few months later, in August, the Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt publicly urged the Israeli Druze to refuse the draft, comparing their military service to collaboration during the Nazi occupation of France.
Although that criticism was denounced at the time as unwarranted interference, some Israeli Druze have been persuaded that their participation in Israeli attacks in the West Bank and Gaza only serves a government policy of divide and rule towards the country’s Palestinian minority.
The army never divulges the identities of soldiers involved in the killing of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but the Druze role in the security services has recently been brought to Arab public attention.
One controversial case was highlighted last February by a judicial inquiry investigating the deaths of 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens at the start of the Intifada. A Druze policeman, Said Abu Rish, was accused at the hearings of taking part in one of the killings, in the town of Jatt near Umm Al-Fahm.
It will, however, not be easy to sever Druze ties to the army. The community’s traditional farming skills have been redundant since their lands were stolen after 1948, and army service at 18 means few of their young men enter higher education. Most have little option after three years in the army but to continue a career in the security services as soldiers, policemen or prison wardens.
The current crisis among the Druze has largely been provoked by the realisation that the many benefits promised by the state in return for military service have failed to materialise. In fact, the Druze have almost nothing to show for their 45 years of loyalty. Their towns and villages are as poorly funded as those of the rest of the Arab sector.
The community’s high unemployment rate also suggests that the Druze rarely benefit from the many job adverts specifying that applicants must have served in the army – a traditional way for Israeli employers to weed out Arabs.
The discrimination faced by the Druze has given the lie to the refrain of successive Israeli governments that the country’s Palestinian minority will receive the same rights as Jews when they take on the same obligations.
Any weakening of Druze loyalty would be a severe blow to the image of the Israeli army. Druze participation has encouraged the army to present itself as a defence force for all the Israeli people rather than as an army protecting the interests of the Jewish state.
A loss of Druze conscripts would also cut off an important source of recruits to the mista’arvim (undercover) forces, the Duvdevan in the West Bank and the Yamas in the Border Police.
These units operate both in Palestinian Authority (PA) areas and inside Israel and have been successful in assassinating several Palestinian leaders.
The army is already acting to bolster Druze support. It recently promised to stop the unpopular practice of forcing men to serve in Druze-only battalions after several soldiers deserted. The battalions are renowned for doing the army’s dirtiest jobs.
Barakeh, one of the organisers of the Druze convention, told Al-Ahram Weekly: “This is a turning point in the struggle against compulsory military service for the Druze. Israel’s aim was always cynical; they wanted to break Arab unity.”
“Israel has put the Druze in the front line during this Intifada to make sure that both the killer and the victim are Arabs. But I consider them both to be the victims,” he added.
The Druze are an offshoot sect of Islam started in Egypt by Ismail Al-Darazi in the 11th century. They later fled persecution and settled in southern Lebanon, with communities being established in Palestine from the 16th century. There they founded two large villages on Mount Carmel, near Haifa, and some 16 other villages in the Galilee.
More than 175 Druze have been killed in action, many of them during the invasion of Lebanon. The village of Beit Jann in Al-Khalil, where more than 50 youngsters have been killed while serving in the army, has the highest proportion of military deaths in Israel.