Ex-IDF chief, Golani vets back Druze ‘brothers’ amid fury over nation-state law

Letter from alumni of top infantry brigade comes after similar missive from former members of Paratroopers Brigade supporting ‘struggle for full equality’

Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2014 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2014 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, along with other veterans of one of the Israeli military’s most storied infantry units, released a letter Friday backing the Druze community and other minority groups amid the fallout from a recently passed law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The letter was signed by a number of former officers and commanders of the Golani Brigade, including Ashkenazi.

“We, the officers, commanders and soldiers from generations of the Golani Brigade, wish to embrace, support and share in the pain of our Druze, Bedouin and Circassian brothers and sisters, as well as all the ethnic groups that serve in the various security forces and who have tied their fate to the [Jewish] people dwelling in Zion since the establishment of the state,” the letter read.

Though the letter did not directly address the nation-state law, its release came as Druze leaders push back against it, with lawmakers from the minority group filing a petition to the High Court of Justice on Sunday against the legislation.

The Golani veterans stressed their letter was not meant as a political statement but as an acknowledgment of the non-Jewish soldiers who serve in the IDF.

Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2007. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2007. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

“We have no intention to express a political opinion but rather to remind all of us and the entire nation of Israel that these wonderful communities stood and stand with us in defending the state,” the letter said.

“Our dear brothers and sisters — you are an inseparable part of this country. You are an inseparable part of these achievements and of us. No one can take this from you,” it continued. “It is a great privilege that you are among and serve with us.”

Critics of the new quasi-constitutional Basic Law say it effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arab and other minority communities. Supporters argue it is needed to place the country’s Jewish character on par with its democratic values.

Ghassan Alian is seen during a patrol near the West Bank city of Jenin on July 30, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

From 2013 to 2015, Golani was headed by Ghassan Alian, who on his appointment to the position became the second-ever Druze to command an IDF infantry brigade.

Unlike Arab Israelis, members of both the Druze and Circassian minorities are subject to Israel’s mandatory draft and serve in large numbers alongside Jewish soldiers in some of the IDF’s most elite units.

The letter from the Golani veterans came a day after former commanders and officers from the Paratroopers Brigade released a similar letter of support for the Druze and other minorities.

That letter, however, explicitly noted the nation-state law and the “struggle for full equality [and] rights in our country” in the wake of the legislation’s passage last week.

“Beyond any political position or affiliation, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them, as an expression of the values of friendship, fraternity and unity,” said the letter.

Among the signatories to the Paratroopers letter were former chiefs of staff Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Shaul Mofaz.

Then IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz confers with then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon at the Navy war room during an operation by naval commandos to capture an Iranian shipment of weapons headed to the Gaza Strip. (Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense)

Both Gantz and Ashkenazi are often named as potential challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly backed the nation-state law, while Ya’alon has emerged as a critical opposition voice since he fell out with the premier and was replaced as defense minister in May 2016. Mofaz formerly headed the centrist Kadima party established by the late prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Amid growing criticism of the nation-state law, Netanyahu held meetings with Druze leaders on Thursday and Friday but did not commit to changing the law.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) meets with Sheikh Muafak Tariff, spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (L) and other Druze leaders at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the nation-state law on July 27, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

“The goal is to reach a quick and acceptable solution which will express the great appreciation the State of Israel has for the unique partnership of fate with the Druze community,” a statement from his office said.

One of the participants in Friday’s meeting, however, said the Druze community remained firm in its demand to change the law and include a clause on equality.

The meetings came as two party leaders in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition — Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett — called for amending the law to address the concerns of the Druze.

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