On the table: Basic Law to enshrine Druze 'important status'

Coalition promises Basic Law to enshrine status of Druze, won’t nix controversial law

As Druze death toll in war against Hamas reaches 6, PM backs acknowledging community’s contributions, but makes no commitment to amend much-panned 2018 nation-state law

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Family and friends of Lt. Col. Salman Habaka mourn at his funeral at the Druze village of Yanuh-Jat, northern Israel, on November 3, 2023. (Flash90)
Family and friends of Lt. Col. Salman Habaka mourn at his funeral at the Druze village of Yanuh-Jat, northern Israel, on November 3, 2023. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition said Saturday that it would advance legislation to enshrine the status of Israel’s Druze community, amid the climbing death toll among Druze soldiers in Israel’s war against Hamas and months after a peak in Druze backlash against discriminatory treatment by the state.

Netanyahu and senior figures in his ruling Likud party threw weight Sunday behind answering Druze community concerns, but stopped short of saying they would amend or repeal 2018’s controversial Basic Law: Nation-State of the Jewish People, which the community has slammed as marginalizing it.

Basic Laws hold a quasi-constitutional status in Israel and are intended to deal with constitution-like issues undergirding the state in lieu of an actual foundational document.

This summer, long-simmering frustrations boiled over into a series of mass demonstrations in the Golan Heights, triggered by a dispute over a government plan to place huge wind turbines on Druze-owned land, but ultimately underpinned by Druze community frustration with alleged differential treatment by the state.

Unique among Israel’s Arab communities for mostly enlisting their men into Israel’s military, the Druze have particularly bristled at the nation-state law and the so-called Kaminitz Law, which eases the state’s path towards destroying illegal building, despite the difficulty of obtaining building permits in Arab towns.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and coalition whip Ofir Katz, both of Likud, issued a statement Saturday evening, saying: “In the coming days, we will promote a draft Basic Law for the Druze community, which aims to anchor the important status of the Druze community in the State of Israel.”

Druze IDF soldiers from the now-disbanded Battalion 299 in the field with the Druze flag. (Courtesy/IDF Flickr)

Netanyahu, responding to reporters’ questions about whether he would accede to Druze community demands to amend the nation-state law, said: “The Druze are a valued community, they fight, they fall, we will give them everything they deserve. We’ll find the ways to do this, it’s essential.”

Two Druze soldiers were killed in Gaza on Saturday, expanding the death toll to six from the community since war broke out between Israel and Hamas on October 7, on the heels of the terror group’s shock onslaught that killed about 1,200 and captured more than 240 people, the vast majority of whom are still held hostage in Gaza.

Lt. Col. (Res) Iyad Abbas, uncle of paratrooper Maj. Jamal Abbas, who was killed on Saturday, told Army Radio on Sunday that passing a separate law would not be enough, arguing that the nation-state law needs to be amended to answer community concerns.

“The nation-state law needs to be fixed, once and for all,” Abbas, currently mobilized for reserve duty in Jerusalem, said. Israel’s leadership, he added, needs to “learn a lesson about who is [its] partner in destiny in this country.”

L-R: Staff Sgt. Shlomo Gurtovnik, Cpt. Eden Provisor, Staff Sgt. Adi Malik Harb, Staff Sgt. Shachar Fridman, Maj. Jamal Abbas, 23. (IDF)

The Druze communal leadership has alternatively pushed for softening the impact of the nation-state law and repealing home demolition orders. The community’s spiritual leader in Israel petitioned the government to do so in a November 6 letter.

“Constitutionally anchor the status of the [Druze] community and the rights of its members,” demanded Mowafaq Tarif.

Tarif urged annulling demolition orders against unpermitted structures in Druze villages if they were built on privately owned land, as well as canceling illegal construction fines against the Druze in Israel’s northern Galilee and Carmel regions.

“Some would say this is not the time to make such a plea, but I believe this is necessary in the name of partnership, even more so today,” Tarif wrote.

Druze community members protest against the construction of a new wind farm in the Golan Heights, June 21, 2023 (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Quickly throwing his weight behind Tarif’s letter, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said at the time that Israel should legally enshrine equality for non-Jewish citizens.

“I’m not requesting you to cancel [the nation-state law], I’m not asking you to violate the promise that you gave yourselves to make Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, but fix the law at this terrible moment as we are burying our dead alongside your dead,” Lapid quoted Tarif as writing, while speaking from the Knesset podium.

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