Druze leader: Golan wind turbine project must stop or face unprecedented response

Muafak Tarif speaks at emergency meeting over controversial project that has enraged Druze living on the plateau

File: Muafaq Tarif, head of the Druze community in Israel, at a ceremony held at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Muafaq Tarif, head of the Druze community in Israel, at a ceremony held at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Muafak Tarif, has warned the government to stop the work to construct wind turbines in the Golan Heights, or face “a reaction the country has hitherto not seen.” He called on the prime minister to seek an arrangement that would be acceptable to Druze residents.

Tarif spoke Friday in an emergency meeting in Kfar Yasif. According to Haaretz, some 2,000 people took part in the gathering against the turbine project that has riled the Druze population in the Golan in recent days and sparked major protests.

Tarif also urged Israel’s leaders to annul laws that discriminate against the Druze, which he said included the controversial 2018 nation-state law, which defined Israel as the nation of the Jewish people; and the so-called Kaminitz Law of 2017, which imposed high penalties on illegal construction and which minorities say has been used to disproportionately target them.

In a meeting with Druze leaders Friday that had been previously scheduled, IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi said the military wants “equality and partnership,” noting that the community “has made an exceptional contribution to national security through service in the IDF.

“Even in difficult times, we must act according to the law and seek good solutions.”

On Thursday, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said work on the wind farm project would pause during a Muslim and Druze holiday next week, following the mass protests.

Ben Gvir had previously said that no work would take place on Eid al-Adha. The far-right minister has also taken a hardline approach to the protests against the wind farm.

The work will halt during the daylong holiday early next week, and resume after the brief break, Ben Gvir said.

“The project will continue as usual. Governance is important to all of us. The State of Israel will not bow down to those who throw Molotov cocktails,” Ben Gvir said on Twitter, after meeting with Tarif and a Druze community council.

“I congratulate the sheik and community leaders who showed responsibility and leadership,” Ben Gvir said.

In an accompanying video posted by Ben Gvir, Tarif said, “The Druze community is against violence, we condemn violence.”

“We all agree on this,” Tarif said, adding that the community plans to hold further talks about the project with government officials.

“I really hope that during these holy days, we will reach agreements,” he said.

Druze face off against police during a protest against the construction of a new wind farm near the Druze village of Majdal Shams, in the Golan Heights, June 20, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Earlier Thursday, Ben Gvir reportedly overruled Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who wanted to freeze the project. Construction had continued on Thursday despite the upheaval the day before.

According to a number of reports, police initially ordered the work on the wind turbines be stopped in the wake of the protests, before reversing that decision and allowing the work to continue. The Israel Police issued a statement denying the reports, saying that such a decision lay solely with the political establishment.

In a statement earlier Thursday, Ben Gvir, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, said that he had conveyed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the work “must continue.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a deadly shooting attack near the West Bank settlement of Eli, June 20, 2023. (Flash90)

“In any case, the work was not planned to continue during the holiday that takes place on Tuesday, but we must not give in to violence and stop the works before the holiday,” Ben Gvir said, referring to Eid al-Adha.

The Walla news site reported that Shabtai believed the work should be paused immediately, at least until after the holiday, but Ben Gvir told the outlet that “capitulation for even a week is capitulation.” Ben Gvir and Shabtai are known to have a fractious relationship.

Thousands of Druze residents of the Golan Heights protested and rioted on Tuesday and Wednesday against the construction of the wind farm near the town of Majdal Shams, burning tires and hurling rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at massive police forces securing the area.

Twelve police officers were wounded, and eight demonstrators were injured — four of them seriously, including one from gunfire.

The protests were held in several locations. Police said they had escalated into masses of people blocking roads and trying to storm the police position in the town of Mas’ade, and some using live fire.

Israel has sought to veer its energy production increasingly toward clean methods, with wind power an important component of those plans. The Energy Ministry has said in the past that the Golan Heights, with its high altitude and windswept valleys, is an optimal location for wind farms.

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

But the plan has angered Druze villagers who see the project as a threat to their agrarian way of life, an encroachment on ancestral lands and a solidification of what they view as Israel’s occupation of the territory.

They contend that the giant, soaring poles and the infrastructure needed to construct them will impede their ability to work their plots. They also say the turbines will disturb the almost sacred bond they feel to their land, which is passed down by generation and where families go for fresh air and green space.

Landowners who signed lease agreements with Energix, the company behind the project, say they weren’t made aware of the potential implications of having turbines on their plot. They say they were tempted by hefty sums into signing what they describe as draconian leases that, coupled with a boycott on the company imposed by influential religious leaders, have made many want to withdraw.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed the territory in 1981 — a move that was not internationally recognized until the administration of former US president Donald Trump did so in 2019.

The Golan’s 26,000 Druze belong to an offshoot of Islam, speak Hebrew and hold Israeli residency status that gives them the right to travel and work freely. The area is also home to some 22,000 Israeli Jews, and is a popular destination for Israeli tourists.

But most of the Golan’s Druze residents have chosen not to take Israeli citizenship — meaning they do not vote in national elections and therefore have no elected representatives in the Knesset — and many still feel inextricably linked to Syria, though that has slowly been changing with more and more quietly applying for citizenship.

Druze from other parts of Israel fully participate in civic life and are renowned for their contributions to the country’s security forces.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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