A Druse physician from the Golan Heights, who works at an Israeli hospital, was one of 24 members of his community arrested for pummeling IDF troops with rocks during so-called Naksa Day protests. Just a few miles south in Daliyat El-Carmel, located on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, the Israeli Druse community is planning a memorial museum that will tell the stories of the 400 Druse soldiers who fell in defense of the State of Israel. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the Druse leadership has become an essential constituent in the Hezbollah-dominated government.
Just where do Druse loyalties lay?
An understanding of their history can help answer that question. The Druse are a breakaway stream of the Ismaili strain of Shi'ite Islam, followers of an ascetic Egyptian ruler named Al-Hakim (996-1021) in whom they see manifestations of the divine. (Al-Hakim was a descendant of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali revered by the Shi'ites.) Influenced in part by Greek ideas, Al-Hakim's persecuted followers broke away from orthodox Islam and eventually coalesced in the mountainous regions of Lebanon, Syria and Israel awaiting his messianic return and salvation (reincarnation being fundamental to their dogma).
Druse keep their religious practices mostly mysterious. Unlike Muslims, Druse Arabs do not observe Ramadan nor make pilgrimages to Mecca and do not proselytize. They venerate Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses as a main prophet. Marrying-out is considered an unforgivable breach of communal solidarity. Indeed, strong ethnic identity, martial skills and mutual aid are part of the Druse canon. Today, there are perhaps 2.5 million Druse living mostly in Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel with smaller communities dispersed as far away as North America and Australia.
In predominantly Sunni Syria, the Druse are mostly concentrated in the southwest abutting Jordan and between Aleppo and Antioch in the north-west. They comprise perhaps four percent of the population. After the First World War with the arrival of the French, the Druse were encouraged to maintain their own autonomous region. Druse attitudes toward the French were conflicted though the community ultimately embraced emergent Arab nationalism.
Syrian independence in 1946 was accompanied by long decades of political convulsions. During the early 1950s for instance, Adib ibn Hasan Shishakli, the military dictator, pursued a Syrian nationalist line yet violently persecuted the Druse whom he perceived as a threat. Shishakli's overthrow paved the way for yet more turmoil during which factions within the Ba'ath Party competed violently for control.
By the time Hafez al-Assad (Basher's father) took power in 1970, the Druse had been purged from positions of influence in the party, army and security services. However, the Assad dynasty, itself rooted in the Alawite minority, relied on the Druse, and true to form, the Druse displayed remarkable loyalty to the regime. In recent years Bashar may have become more distant from them, perhaps because he wanted to draw closer to the Sunni majority, according to Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University. Druse fidelity has begun to crack only as anti-Assad demonstrations have gained inexorable momentum and security forces have targeted the Druse. Kedar speculates that if Syria does disintegrate, the Druse could seek to restore their earlier autonomy.
Watching from the other side of the border, Israeli Druse parliamentarian, Deputy Galilee and Negev Development Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) has tried to muster Jerusalem's support for some kind of intervention on behalf of the Syrian opposition only to be rebuffed. Lately, he's turned to the Turkish authorities asking to be allowed to lead an Israeli aid mission to the Turkish-Syrian border.
On the Golan Heights, a very small number of Druse accepted Israeli citizenship when the Knesset applied Israeli law to the territory in 1981, while most remained loyal to the Assad regime. On the whole, though some Druse have been arrested for spying for Syria, most have simply sought not to fall afoul of either Jerusalem or Damascus knowing that control of the Heights could flip in any peace deal. Israel has been generally sensitive to the Druse predicament. In mid-February, for instance, 12,000 tons of apples grown by Druse farmers near Majdal Shams were exported to Syria despite the de facto state of war between the two countries. At the start of the anti-government protests in Syria, some Golan residents demonstrated in support of Assad. But as the demonstrations gained traction more Golan Druse have turned against Assad and expressed solidarity for the opposition.
The Druse need to coldly calibrate their alliances is nowhere more pronounced than in the failed state of Lebanon. There's been no verifiable census there in decades, but there are believed to be hundreds of thousands of Druse in Lebanon with a stronghold in the Chouf Mountains. After his father Kamal was assassinated (in all likelihood by the Assads), Druse leader Walid Jumblat actually drew closer to Syria. Over the years he has switched sides intermittently most recently in March 2010. Nowadays he backs Lebanon's new hegemon, the Shi'ite Islamist movement Hezbollah, clients of the Assad dynasty though ultimately beholden to Iran.
Emphasizing his Arab credentials, Jumblat has aligned the Druse with Arab "leftists" -- essentially nationalist secularists – through his Progressive Socialist Party. His anti-Israel rhetoric has been unwavering. The Druse have been sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs, permanent "refugees" in Lebanon, and have advocated for them being granted the right to own property. This has not guaranteed the Druse immunity from attack by uncompromising Palestinian Islamists.
All the same, earlier this month Jumblat lauded the Golan Druse who collaborated in Syrian-inspired Palestinian efforts to storm across the Golan boundary with Israel. He has long urged his coreligionists in Israel not to serve in the IDF. Yet as the Assad regime wobbles, possibly weakening Hezbollah, the Lebanese Druse are becoming more assertive. A Druse member of the Hezbollah-dominated new cabinet recently resigned to protest the dearth of patronage posts allocated to his community.
Which brings us back to the 127,000-strong, overwhelmingly loyal, Druse citizens of Israel. Their young men have long been conscripted into the army where many have served with distinction. A Druse journalist, Rafik Halabi, was news director for Israel's Channel 1 during the 1990s. By 2001 a Druse had been named to Israel's cabinet (by Ariel Sharon). Patronage delivered by the Likud to the Druse town of Daliat el-Carmel has encouraged many locals to join the party. However, the acculturation process has not been effortless. Since many Druse schools teach the sciences in Arabic, Israel’s education ministry has been trying to encourage a shift to Hebrew so that graduates can better integrate into Israeli higher education. The Netanyahu has (belatedly) budgeted substantial sums for the socio-economic developing of the community. Efforts are also underway to prepare Druse young people for jobs in Israel's hi-tech sector.
This is not to suggest that Israel could not do much more to reward Druse loyalty or demonstrate greater cultural sensitivity. Earlier this year, the government defused simmering tensions by reaching a compensation deal with Druse landowners whose properties had been confiscated for a planned natural gas pipeline.
The seemingly Machiavellian character of Druse loyalties reflects what it means to be a minority people in a mostly intolerant Muslim Middle East. Just as the Druse have found it strategically prudent to concentrate mostly on high ground away from urban areas, their political strategy toward outside powers has been one of "adaptability and fluidity" according to the University of Haifa's Gabriel Ben-Dor. The Druse prefer to be loyal to the country in which they reside. At the same time, their survival depends on a knack for aligning with what Lee Smith has called the Strong Horse, offering an artful political barometer for gauging the ever-shifting balance of power in the region.
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