From Israel’s most loyal minority, draft objectors emerge

Stop trampling our religious sensibilities and treating us like a herd, Druze activists demand, fed up with state discrimination

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A Druze family stands silent during a Memorial Day ceremony at the military cemetery of Ussefiya on Mount Carmel, April 2010 (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)
A Druze family stands silent during a Memorial Day ceremony at the military cemetery of Ussefiya on Mount Carmel, April 2010 (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

Yamen Zeidan’s eldest brother Fouad was killed in action in 1987 serving as a border patrol soldier in the West Bank. Nine years later, his other brother Saleh, a combatant in the Golani infantry brigade, fell in a suicide attack targeting his convoy in southern Lebanon.

But on Israel’s Memorial Day, when Zeidan joins his family at the military cemetery of Beit Jann, a Druze town of 12,000 in the Upper Galilee, it is not the “covenant of blood” connecting his community with the Jewish state that is on his mind.

“Memorial Day reminds me of the extent of Zionist conspiracy against the Druze community,” the 33-year-old lawyer, who serves as legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Prisoner Affairs, told The Times of Israel. “The blood of my brothers was paid so that traditional and so-called community leaders can get jobs. Nothing more.”

Zeidan is also a founding member of “Refuse — Your People Will Protect You,” a grassroots group launched three months ago to encourage conscientious objection and advocate for the cancellation of military conscription among Israel’s Druze community of 135,000. The group’s Facebook page, boasting 4,500 supporters, offers free legal and psychological advice for Druze teenagers considering objection.

The Refuse group, it would seem, has its work cut out for it. According to IDF data, enlistment rates among the Druze are stable at 82 percent, significantly higher than the national average of 75 percent. Druze soldiers serve in sensitive combat and intelligence positions and even have their own infantry unit, Sword Battalion, which dates back to the early days of the state.

Druze activist Yamen Zeidan (photo credit: Youtube image grab)
Palestinian Druze activist Yamen Zeidan (via YouTube)

Israel’s military service law was applied to the Druze in May 1956. According to the IDF website, the move followed an appeal by community leaders to then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Six years earlier, the Druze Battalion of the Arab Liberation Army — a volunteer force sent to fight the Zionist troops during the War of Independence — fell apart following an abortive attack on Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, east of Haifa, on April 11, 1948. That seminal failure, argues Israeli historian Benny Morris, caused the Druze to stay neutral throughout the remainder of the war and sign a secret cooperation pact with the Haganah.

Zeidan’s view of history is different. He cites research refuting “the Zionist myth” of habitual Muslim persecution of the Druze, noting that community members were an integral part of the Arab fighting forces against the nascent state; with no fewer than 600 Druze combatants within the ranks of the Arab Liberation Army (which numbered 4,500), 100 of them from Palestine. The commanders of seven decisive battles during the 1948 war were Druze, he adds proudly.

“The historic truth is different from what we are taught in schools,” he says. “We are told about partnership, about how the Druze built this state with the Jews. Give me a break! Did the Zionist project need the Druze to build the state? The entire world supported it.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the Spiritual Leader of the Druze Community in Israel Sheikh Muwaffaq Tarif (2R) in the village of Julis in Northern Israel, April 25, 2013 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel Sheikh Moafaq Tarif (second on the right) in the village of Julis, April 25, 2013 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)

“Israel continues to treat the Druze as a herd to this day. This herd has a sheikh and a leader which [Israel] speaks to  … but why should I be bound by a decision signed 60 years ago between 10 or 15 people and the State of Israel?”

It is not pacifism that drives Refuse but rather a profound sense of Arab nationalism coupled with a strong feeling of injustice relating to the Jewish state, which claims to treat all of its citizens equally but in practice discriminates against the Druze in resource allocation. Beit Jann, which sacrificed over 50 soldiers since Israel’s creation, is today, according to Zeidan, “the Palestinian village with the highest rate of land confiscation in Israel.” Its outdated building plan has not been modified in 25 years.

‘Using holy sites for military ceremonies is sacrilegious’

On the eve of Israel’s Independence Day, while many of his coreligionists in Israel were preparing their blue-and-white flags, Alaa Muhanna hiked to the abandoned Palestinian village of Lubya near Tiberias to mark Nakba Day, the Palestinians commemorate the catastrophe of the creation of Israel.

‘Why should I be bound by a decision signed 60 years ago between 10 or 15 people and the State of Israel?’

A few days before Israel’s national holiday, Muhanna, an award-winning novelist and poet from the Upper Galilee village of Peki’in, co-authored a communique for Refuse calling on Druze religious leaders to stop holding military ceremonies at religious sites.

In January, some 1,200 Druze high school seniors converged at the tomb of Jethro, a Druze holy site known as Nabi Shu’aib near Tiberias, for a conference presenting the positions open to them in the army. The event was attended by senior officers including the head of the IDF Northern Command, as well as the religious leader of the Druze in Israel, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif. Days before, a military swearing-in ceremony was held at the same site.

Druze writer and activist Alaa Muhanna photo credit: courtesy)
Palestinian Druze writer and activist Alaa Muhanna (photo credit: courtesy)

“It goes against our religion to use these sites for political or military purposes,” Muhanna said, adding that the community’s previous religious leader, Sheikh Amin Tarif, objected to mixing army and religion.

“There is no separation in the Druze community between political and religious leadership, which is a problem,” Muhanna added. “If our leaders keep allowing these ceremonies, we will not remain silent.”

The Druze, who believe in reincarnation, traditionally avoid visiting grave sites. But the community’s religious authorities have sanctioned exceptions for IDF soldiers. On Israel’s Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers, families are allowed to visit their loved ones’ graves, and prayers are recited over the souls of dead secular soldiers, a practice traditionally reserved exclusively for religious deceased, Zeidan said.

“I am not allowed to visit my grandfather’s grave, but I am allowed to visit my brothers’,” he noted. “This I call the politicization of religion, with the goal of improving the standing of soldiers in society and legitimize military service.”

A written statement sent to the Times of Israel from Sheikh Tarif’s office asserted that despite government discrimination, the Druze community will continue “to fight for our rights without hesitation on the one hand, while carrying out our national duties on the other.”

“Like every society, Druze society too has extremist, subversive elements who try to stir up the youth, with one goal: to break the alliance between the Druze community and the State of Israel,” the message read. “The Prime Minister, his advisers and the Attorney General must understand that harming the young generation serving in the army sets the stage for extreme and dangerous movements, some of which serve interests that are alien to us. The heads of state must show sensitivity and responsibility in rectifying the situation and prioritizing community members who serve the state and its security.”

Zeidan can’t say how many young men have decided to dodge the draft as a result of Refuse’s activities (Druze women are exempt from serving in the military), but claims that new supporters join every day. He cites reports regarding the government’s intention to draft Israel’s Christian Arabs as proof that the Jewish state is trying to fan sectarian flames within society.

“We are faced with a state that invests billions of shekels to create hybrids out of our people, while we confront it with words, with information, which is why our progress is relatively slow,” he said.

But Haitham Natur, a resident of Daliat El-Karmel near Haifa, said that Israel’s Druze minority could hardly demand equality if it didn’t serve the state just like the Jewish majority. Discharged from his three-year service in 2006, Natur was noticeably annoyed with the existence of Refuse, which he considers an ideological cover for simple draft-dodging.

Despite the existence of discrimination against the Druze, he added, nowhere in the Arab Middle East are they treated as well as in Israel.

“We’ve tied our destiny with that of Israel many years ago,” he said. “What concern is the other side to me? I need electricity in my home. We will get nowhere if we don’t serve.”

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