Is the loyalty of the Druze to the Jewish state appreciated at its true value? This long-standing debate in Israel has been given new vigour in the context of the war with Hamas, in which this Arab community from a branch of Shiite Islam is actively participating. The Druze, the only non-Jews subject to military service, fought en masse in the ranks of the Israeli army, but felt that they were not sufficiently recognized.
"It is time for the government to wake up to the Druze community, its soldiers and those who have fallen in battle," Druze cleric Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early November. "It is time for the government and the Knesset to amend the nation-state law and redress historical distortions regarding the Druze community, while enshrining the community and its rights in law."
The 2018 "Nation-State of the Jewish People" law, which defines Israel as a Jewish state and whose only official language is Hebrew, was seen as a betrayal by the Arabic-speaking religious community linked to Israel by a "blood pact." This term refers to the unbreakable alliance between the Druze and Israel where, in exchange for the blood shed in battle, the Israeli authorities granted them protection and a form of autonomy, ratified by the Knesset in 1963, particularly in the areas of education and administrative justice.
"In 2018, they were the first to protest [against the law] because they saw it as a breach of the contract with Israel. Since the birth of the Jewish state in 1948, the Druze have considered themselves allies of Israel because they are an ethno-religious minority whose political tradition is to ally themselves with the strongest," said Denis Charbit, a professor of political science at the Israel Open University.
Practicing a heterodox and syncretic Islam, the Druze reject Sharia, Islamic law and its ritual obligations, such as fasting during Ramadan. Considered heretics by Sunnis and Shiites, they have been regularly persecuted throughout their history, reinforcing a form of communal withdrawal and a cult of secrecy.
Since the terror attacks by Hamas on 7 October, at least six Druze soldiers have been among the 390 Israeli soldiers killed in action. For these historic allies of the Zionist movement, participation in the war effort is a central part of their identity. In 1948, Unit 300, the first Druze unit, joined the ranks of the Israeli army. Unlike Israeli Arabs, Druze men have been required to perform military service since 1956. For the Israeli authorities, this discreet community, which is also present in Lebanon and Syria, represents a model of integration.
"We consider ourselves committed to serving in the Israel Defense Forces. We do it with pride as Israelis," said Anan Kheir, a lawyer and member of the Druze Veterans' Association. "The recruitment rate of 18-year-olds is 87 percent among Druze compared to 67 percent among Jews. No one does more for Israel than we do," he added, recalling that 452 Druze soldiers have lost their lives defending Israel since its creation.
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For Israeli Druze, a military career offers a powerful means of upward mobility. "The Druze have a reluctance towards modernity, which handicaps them in a dynamic and liberal society: the notion of equality between men and women is not at all obvious among them. They live in economic self-sufficiency and are also very few in higher education compared to the rest of the Israeli Arab population. As a result, they can generally claim lower-paid positions," says Denis Charbit.
As a result, many of them decide to pursue military careers, and many members of the community have risen to positions high up in the chain of command. To date, the highest-ranking officer to have perished in the ground incursion into Gaza is Lt. Col. Salman Habaka, from a Druze village in the Galilee.
🔴 ISRAEL AT WAR: 18th IDF soldier fallen in battle against the Nazi Islamist enemy. Le lieutenant colonel Salman Habaka. 33 years old. Member of Israel's loyal Druze community. Member of Brigade 53. 😪🙏🇮🇱. pic.twitter.com/uhzP28bWYU
— Jonathan Serero (@sererojonathan) November 2, 2023
"The social ladder that is the army works particularly well for the Druze community. The fact that Arabic is their mother tongue allows them to occupy strategic and crucial positions, especially during law enforcement operations in the occupied territories, where they do not need the services of a translator and can directly discuss and negotiate," said Denis Charbit.
The cramped Druze
While the "blood pact" between Israel and the Druze has not been called into question, the losses suffered by the community during and after 7 October, as well as its involvement in the war in Gaza, have brought the demands of this religious minority back to the forefront.
For several decades, the Druze have felt marginalized from a socio-economic point of view, blaming the state for a lack of investment in the 16 villages in northern Israel where they are exclusively located.
Their main demand concerns housing, and more specifically what the community considers to be a variable geometry application of the land use plan. The members of this Arab minority, anchored in this mountainous region of the Middle East for a millennium, have for the most part chosen to found a home in the heart of their cultural and identity cradle.
However, as urban plans have not changed for several decades, space is beginning to run out, forcing the Druze to build illegal constructions. "We Druze only build in our villages. The problem is that instead of expanding the area where we are allowed to build, like in Jewish settlements or in big cities, the authorities offer us no other solution," Kheir said.
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It is estimated that about two-thirds of Druze homes in Israel have been built without permits in recent decades, with the risk of demolition and, more importantly, fines for violators. Adopted in 2017, the so-called "Kaminitz" law significantly tightened financial sanctions.
"They are destroying our wallets and our bank account," Ashraf Halabi, a basketball coach who has been fined about NIS 600,000 ($148,000) for illegally building his house and a swimming pool on the outskirts of the village of Beit Jann, told AFP.
"The Druze, especially the younger ones, are suffering from this situation. We've been asking for ten years to be able to expand our municipalities, but nothing has happened," says Anan Kheir.
This frustration was particularly evident last summer with a series of large rallies in the Golan Heights to protest a proposed wind farm on land owned by the Druze.
"It's just promises"
Since 2018 and the adoption of the nation-state law, which enshrines Israel's Jewish identity, the traditionally low-key Druze community has become increasingly vocal. "With this law, you're either Jewish or you're not. It creates second-class citizens," said lawyer Anan Kheir.
However, Israel's ruling coalition government appears poised to make a move. MK Ofir Katz and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, both members of the right-wing conservative Likud party, announced on November 19 a draft basic law, with quasi-constitutional value in Israel, to enshrine the status of the Druze community in stone.
"It's quite rare for Likud to respond immediately to this type of demand," Charbit said. However, the Druze community does not want a specific law, but rather for the principle of equality among citizens to be incorporated into the famous law of the nation-state of the Jewish people."
Asked by reporters about the possibility of amending the controversial 2018 law, Netanyahu was careful not to commit to it. "The Druze are a precious community. They fight, they fall in battle, Israel will give them what they deserve," the Israeli prime minister said simply.
In the meantime, the possibility of freezing fines for illegal constructions erected by the Druze has been raised by several Likud officials. "We feel that the government wants to make itself useful now, not after the war with Hamas," Kheir said. "But with these politicians, it's never black and white. And for now, it's just promises."
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