Omar Saad, an 18-year-old Druze man from northern Israel, was released on Wednesday from his second term in prison for refusing conscription into the Israeli army.
He is expected to return to prison on January 12, and like other conscientious objectors before him, Saad’s continued rejection could lead to several more prison terms before being released for good.
Saad, a talented violinist and a member of the sibling group Galilee Quartet, is one of what some Druze say is a growing number of conscientious objectors from their community. The signs of dissent have made some Israeli officials uneasy about a people they have actively embraced but whose loyalty they have often questioned.
There are around 120,000 Druze in 22 villages in northern Israel, close to two percent of the population. There are also 800,000 Druze in Syria and around 450,000 in Lebanon. A religious offshoot of Ismaili Shia Islam, the Druze are unlike other Arab populations in Israel. Since 1956 members of the minority group, known for its religious secrecy, have served in the Israeli military – putting them at odds with their Arab brethren.
Although the overwhelming majority of Druze serve in the army, for decades some young Druze men have refused to serve. Strong opposition to Druze conscription into the Israeli army began in 1972 with the establishment of the Druze Initiative Committee urging the end to what they call exploitation of Druze soldiers.
Today, vibrant local news outlets and social media sites have led to louder voices of protest among younger Druze in Israel.
“Our Druze brothers are part of us. They serve in combat units in the IDF [the Israeli army] and they should be treated as equals,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on November 30.
In the military, Druze often serve as the point of contact with Arabic-speaking populations under Israeli military control.
Netanyahu’s comment came in response to a highly publicised incident last month in which Druze soldiers were denied access to the Dimona nuclear site for a military drill, while fellow Jewish soldiers were waved in. Israeli Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muwaffak Tarif called the event an unacceptable insult to the Druze, showing blatant discrimination against the soldiers based on their religion.
Today, 83 percent of Druze enlist in the Israeli army, compared to 72 percent of Israeli Jews. Countless social media groups are dedicated to Druze pride in Israel and Druze battalions are often on the front lines of Israel’s battles.
“In the military, Druze often serve as the point of contact with Arabic-speaking populations under Israeli military control. That is the case with the Palestinians in the West Bank, and that was the case in southern Lebanon,” said Uri Zaki, former US director of the Israeli non-profit organisation B’Tselem.
For example, Zaki recalls Druze serving as interrogators in the West Bank during his service in the early 1990s. While recognising that the minority group does face discrimination in Israel, Zaki said it would be fair to say that Israeli Jews generally feel solidarity with the Druze community, mainly because of the fact that they serve in the military.
Professor Amir Khnifess, a scholar on the relationship between Druze and the state of Israel, said it’s complicated to be Druze in Israel – particularly as a soldier. For many Druze, he said, serving in the Israeli military has little to do with loyalty to the Jewish state and more to do with seeking a better standard of living.
“The Druze don’t serve in the army because they hate Palestinians, they do so because serving in the army will give you economic benefits,” he explained. “You are already facing discrimination for not being Jewish, so [the Druze] want to reduce the level of discrimination by serving in the army.”
Khnifess compared the Druze service in the Israeli military to Palestinians working on construction sites for future Israeli settlements. “It’s not because they are disloyal to their people, it’s because they have to live,” he said.
Druze service to the Jewish state began in the 1940s at a time when the previously politically passive, peasant community was in conflict with Arab nationalists. This drove some Druze to fight alongside the Jews, who welcomed and encouraged their support.
|The Druze community is over-represented in the Israeli military relative to its population [GALLO/GETTY]|
“There is a special three-fold bond between the Jewish people and the Druze community – in blood, in life and among our peoples. I would like to express the Jewish people’s appreciation for those Druze who have fallen in defence of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a visit to the Druze communities last April.
“I fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Druze soldiers and commanders, and my late brother fought alongside Druze soldiers who brought honour and security to the state of Israel, and I and the Jewish people will never forget this.”
This so-called “blood bond” between the Druze and Jewish Israelis is not shared by all Druze. A 2009 study found a consistent decline in Druze patriotism and loyalty to the state of Israel.
“There are many advantages to serving in the army. The government takes care of you, you get a good salary, housing benefits and a good retirement plan,” said former Druze soldier Yusef Ali, who comes from a family of both soldiers and objectors. “But they brainwash us in the army and use us,” said Ali, who served in the IDF in 1996. “The bottom line is they don’t give a damn if we are Druze – we are still ‘Arabs’ to them.”
‘We are Arab first’
Reliance on the security sector for employment has resulted in the Druze having among the lowest university attendance rates in the country. In addition, many Druze claim blatant government discrimination against their villages and have actively protested against scarce economic opportunities.
We are Arab first, Palestinian second, and living under Israeli occupation.
Druze activist Hadiy’ya Kayoof, who comes from the northern village of Isfiya, notes that only a small minority of people in her village have attended university. In addition, her village lacks modern urban planning and proper infrastructure due to government procrastination in approving building maps, she said.
Historically, Druze communities have allied themselves with their host country’s government for protection and survival. In Syria, the Druze are allied with the Assad regime. In Lebanon, the main Druze party, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), has flip-flopped its alliances based on the changing powers in the country.
After more than 60 years of fighting alongside one another, young Israeli Druze are increasingly frustrated, seeing their community’s loyalty to Israel as misplaced and their service undervalued.
“I refuse the term ‘Israeli Druze’,” said Kayoof, who is a member of an organisation against the mandatory conscription of Druze into the Israeli military. “We are Arab first, Palestinian second, and living under Israeli occupation,” she said, adding that she “personally believe[s] that the Druze have begun losing their trust in government”.
Like Kayoof and Saad, many are taking it upon themselves to reconnect with their community’s Arab identity and perhaps even reconcile with fellow Arabs – many of whom view them as traitors to the Arab and Palestinian cause.