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As ties to Syria fade, Golan Druze increasingly turning to Israel for citizenship

After years of eschewing offers, record numbers of Druze are quietly applying to become Israeli, motivated not by newfound Zionism, but convenience and a drift away from Damascus

Druze men look out over the border between Israel and Syria near Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on February 14, 2014. (AP/Oded Balilty)
Druze men look out over the border between Israel and Syria near Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on February 14, 2014. (AP/Oded Balilty)

In the four decades since Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights, the Druze residents of the volcanic plateau have zealously maintained their Syrian identities and ways of life. From signage that gives no quarter to Hebrew to farms that ship their produce across the border rather than down the road, sharp-eyed visitors can see how the community has thoroughly rejected integration into Israel, instead maintaining strong commercial, social and academic ties to Damascus.

Neither the improved economic situation of the Druze population nor the concerted efforts of successive Israeli governments to cut those links have made any difference.

In recent years, however, a quiet shift has taken place. After years of near-blanket rejection of Israeli offers of citizenship, the number of Golan Druze applying to become Israeli citizens has begun to tick upwards.

Official government figures obtained through a freedom of information request submitted by Shomrim, via the Movement for Freedom of Information NGO, show that over the past five years, the number of citizenship requests filed by Druze residents of the Golan Heights has gradually jumped from 75 requests in 2017 to 239 in 2021.

The number for 2022 will likely be even higher still. In the first half of the year alone, 206 requests were submitted.

The reasons for the change are not entirely clear, but appear to be connected to the Syrian civil war, which made links with Damascus harder to maintain and altered attitudes toward the regime in Damascus. Generational shifts may also be at play, with many Golan Druze coming of age today bound to Syria only by stories.

Druze from the Golan Heights at the Quneitra crossing with Israel on September 16, 2010. (Flash90)

Shomrim contacted dozens of Druze residents of the Golan asking for an interview for the purposes of this article. Among those Druze with strong affiliations to Israel, including those involved in local government and people who are actively involved in helping obtain Israeli citizenship, there was practically across-the-board refusal to talk to Shomrim. The main concern was that they would be subjected to pressure from their community should they speak openly.

Those opposed to taking Israeli citizenship also refused to be interviewed about it, fearing that talking to the media could make them “targets” for Israeli authorities.

One of the few people who agreed to talk to Shomrim was a woman in her early 20s who grew up in a family that had never sought Israeli citizenship. Mila, a pseudonym, described a community in which a new narrative has taken hold, one that questions the loyalty of the Syrian regime to the Druze community on the Golan Heights and the difficulty that young Druze have identifying with Syria, a country most have never even visited.

“I have never felt any kind of affinity to Syria or to Israel,” she said.

Her decision to request citizenship, which she kept secret from her extended family, was motivated by convenience alone.

Recognizing reality

Unlike the Druze of northern Israel, who have largely accepted Israeli rule, the Druze living in the Golan Heights have continued to maintain close ties with Syria, even after Israel captured the territory in 1967 and effectively annexed it in 1981. Of the 21,000 Druze who live in four towns in the Israeli Golan, Interior Ministry figures show that some 4,300 are Israeli citizens, including some who inherited the status from parents who previously accepted citizenship.

The Syrian regime has actively encouraged the preservation of tight links with the Golan Druze, supporting commercial ties and allowing Druze residents of the Golan to study for free in Syrian academic institutions, for instance. There have been family reunifications between Druze on either side of the border as well as marriages linking families that are today in two separate warring countries.

Golan Druze bride Arin prepares to meet her groom at the Quneitra border. crossing on September 25, 2008. (Hamad Almakt/Flash90)

The Druze, for their part, have made sure to publicly display their loyalty to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime, holding regular demonstrations and protests against Israel’s control of the plateau.

An IDF ambulance that was attacked by Druze Israeli residents in the Golan Heights as it ferried Syrian war casualties into Israel for medical treatment, June 22, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

In 1982, residents held a six-month general strike to protest Israel passing a law that extended its sovereignty to the Golan Heights. Protests have been held on the anniversary of the annexation decision annually, though the number of participants is usually limited to a few hundred.

The shows of support are not empty gestures. In 2015, protesting Druze attacked ambulances carrying wounded Syrians into Israel for treatment, believing them to be aiding opposition fighters. At the time, Druze villages were under an onslaught by jihadist rebels fighting Assad.

At the same time, Golan Druze have displayed apathy toward Israel. In 2018, only 272 people in Majdal Shams — population 12,000 — voted in local elections, seen as legitimizing Israeli rule.

Druze residents of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights set ablaze makeshift ballot papers during a protest on October 19, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Israel has allowed Druze to apply for citizenship since the early 1980s, shortly after it annexed the territory, but until recently, only a small trickle of people took the offer.

According to figures from the Population and Immigration Authority, just four Druze took Israeli citizenship in 2010. Over the subsequent three years, the number of naturalization cases varied from 14 to 18 a year. But as the Syrian civil war continued to rage and Assad began to lose grip over the large swaths of Syria, the numbers began to climb slowly, reaching a record 139 applications in 2019.

Though figures dropped in 2020, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic shuttering the Interior Ministry’s offices, they have since bounced back and appear set to break records yet again.

(Photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Yusri Hazran, a historian and senior lecturer at Shalem College in Jerusalem who has researched trends and changes in Druze society in the Golan Heights, predicted that within 20 years, some half of the Druze residents of the Golan Heights will hold Israeli citizenship.

According to Hazran, the Syrian civil war has “smashed the idea of a Syrian nation” and severed many links between the Golan Druze and Damascus, including cross-border sales of produce and university attendance.

“There are almost no Druze students traveling to Syria to study, despite their far-reaching benefits, such as automatic acceptance to certain disciplines without taking an entry exam and exemption from tuition,” said Hazran, who plans to publish his research in the coming months.

Residents of the Golan Heights wave Syrian and Druze flags as they gather in front of a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the contested area, in the town of Majdal Shams, on March 23, 2019. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Hazran, who said he also encountered significant difficulties getting people to interview for his research, noted that political protests against Israel have dwindled in the last decade. But even so, he said those applying for citizenship were not doing so out of a desire to become Israeli, but rather because clinging to Syria was no longer an attractive option.

“The collapse of the Syrian state and the devastation there forced the Golan Druze to choose the rational option: integrate into the Israel sphere. It’s a practical integration. I can sum it up in four words: Recognizing reality, not Zionism,” he said.

Voting figures bear this out, as even those with Israeli citizenship are not casting ballots in national elections.

In Majdal Shams, the largest Druze town, there are some 2,068 Israeli citizens, of whom 962 are eligible to vote. In the last Knesset election, just 169 residents cast ballots for a turnout rate of 17.5%, far below the national average of 67% and even the 44% in Arab towns who voted.

(Photo credit: Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The turnout was similar in other Druze communities, with 19 percent in Mas’ade, 15 percent in Buq’ata, and 10 percent in Ein Qiniyye. (Interestingly, those who did vote showed a preference for the right-wing Likud party, which won three of the four towns.)

Among the reasons for the low turnout are lack of identification with Israel or indifference toward the state. Residents may have also feared being exposed as citizens by being seen at a polling place.

‘I don’t know anything but Israel’

Mila, the Druze woman, said she applied for citizenship in 2021, which was swiftly granted. But her decision is a secret to most.

“My parents don’t have [Israeli] citizenship, and they accepted and respected my decision. The broader family doesn’t know about it, and I assume that if they were to find out, some of my relatives would sever their ties with me,” she said.

According to Hazran, some also fear retaliation against relatives still in Syria should it become known that they received Israeli passports.

Druze men in the Israeli Golan Heights congregate near the Syrian border, waving their community’s flag, after they heard about a suicide bombing in the Syrian Druze village of Hadar, on November 3, 2017. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Mila expressed understanding for the widespread opposition to taking Israeli citizenship, especially from older people who “experienced first-hand a bloody war.”

Mila noted that recent years have seen a shift in narratives surrounding the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the Golan from Syria.

According to historians, between 90,000 and 130,000 people living on the Golan were displaced by the fighting, the vast majority of whom were Sunni Muslims, though some Druze and members of other communities also moved across the border. Israel did not seek to expel the Druze and allowed some who fled to return in 1969. 

“Some people say Israel did not really capture the Golan Heights, but the Syrian regime sold us out,” she said. “Others say that Israel captured the Heights and, in so doing, carried out mass murders and expelled many Druze from their homes. Many people don’t know the history and have no idea what the truth is.”

She herself was born more than 30 years after the war. “I don’t know anything else apart from Israel,” Mila said.

Druze children pass Israeli army signs warning of a minefield on their way home from school in Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

Though her dream was to study medicine in Damascus, the civil war made that impossible. Instead, she studied in Israel, and since graduating, she has worked for several Israeli companies. She has also found time to travel overseas with her family.

Not having citizenship, she says, made life hard for her every step of the way, especially when traveling between countries, so she decided to request Israeli citizenship and improve her quality of life.

Despite the possible shift, Hazran said most Druze in the Golan self-identified as either Syrian Druze or Arab Druze in a survey he conducted for his research.

“The number of people taking Israeli citizenship may be high, but, to my understanding, there is no inherent change in the community’s worldview,” he said.

“Despite the huge crisis in Syria, they adhere to their Syrian national identity,” Hazran added. “For them, taking Israeli citizenship is not Israelization or Zionization but a rational choice that they hope will improve their quality of life.”

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