Golan Druze communities set for first municipal elections — and many are fuming

Golan Druze communities set for first municipal elections — and many are fuming

While some locals support the first local vote since 1967, many others, who feel a strong sense of loyalty to Syria, vehemently protest the move

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Sameera Rada Emran, a candidate for mayor in Ein Qinya, stands outside home on October 23, 2018. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)
Sameera Rada Emran, a candidate for mayor in Ein Qinya, stands outside home on October 23, 2018. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

EIN QINYA, Golan Heights — Sameera Rada Emran, a banker from a small hillside village in the Golan Heights, wants to become the first elected mayor of her town since it came under Israeli control in the 1967 Six Day War. But she may be ostracized by her neighbors in the process.

Druze local and religious leaders in Ein Qinya, according to Rada Emran, have warned her that if she moves forward with her mayoral election bid, the 2,300 or so people who live in her village will essentially shun her.

“The local leaders announced that if I go on, I will be punished and excluded from the community,” said Rada Emran, a 46-year-old born and raised in Majdal Shams and a mother of two, in her colorful living room. “What I mean is I won’t be participating in events like weddings or funerals and if I pass away, they won’t be participating in my funeral.”

For the first time since Israel captured the Golan approximately a half century ago, the Jewish state has decided to hold local elections on Tuesday in the territory sandwiched between the Galilee and Syria.

Local and regional council elections will be held throughout the country on that day.

Druze men sit in the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on October 19, 2018. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

The elections have become the talk of the four Druze villages in the Golan —Majdal Shams, Bukata, Masada and Ein Qinya — in which an estimated 26,500 people live.

While a number of locals have supported the elections, many others, who feel a strong sense of loyalty to Syria, have vehemently protested them, with some calling them an Israeli plan to “Israelize” the Druze in the Golan.

Despite the apparent high price of running in the elections, Rada Emran said she has no intention of withdrawing her candidacy.

“What message will I be sending to the next generation if I withdraw from something I believe in?…I refuse to do that,” she said, branding her cause “worth fighting” for.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 war and kept the territory under military rule until 1981, when the Knesset overwhelmingly voted in favor of annexing it and applying Israeli law there.

The international community including the United States has not recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan and the United Nations Security Council declared it “null and void” later that year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the international position on the Golan Heights and has vowed the territory “will forever remain under Israel’s sovereignty.”

Israel historically has appointed members to local councils in the four Druze communities in the Golan. In late 2016, however, a group of Druze lawyers petitioned the High Court of Justice to allow locals to elect members to the councils and some six months later, the Interior Ministry announced they would be permitted to do so.

When he announced the vote, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri called it “a move that strengthens Israel’s democracy.”

Druze residents of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights set ablaze election-related material during a protest on October 19, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

In the past month, both local religious leaders and activists have demonstrated fierce opposition to the upcoming elections.

Approximately a week ago, a major protest took place in the center of Majdal Shams, where demonstrators burned election-related material and chanted, “Our identity is known; it is Arab-Syrian.” The religious leaders have also invited candidates to khalwas, Druze prayer houses, to ask them to withdraw from the elections.

In the past week alone, several candidates, including all of those who planned to run for mayor in Masada, pulled out of the elections. Fahed Safadi, one of the candidates who withdrew from the race in Masada, helped bring the original petition to the High Court to permit locals to elect their own council members.

“We totally reject this attempt to Israelize the Golan through elections,” said 52-year-old Izz ad-Din Shams, a religious leader in Majdal Shams. “We are Syrian-Arabs and we refuse to give legitimacy to the occupation over the Golan by voting in this elections project.”

Many Druze residents of the Golan believe their villages are part and parcel of Syria and strongly support Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Since the start of the bloody Syrian civil war, however, a small but growing number of Druze in the territory have come to believe their future most likely will be in Israel rather than Syria.

This trend has been reflected by the rising number of Druze in the Golan applying for Israeli citizenship. While an average of 10 people per year filed applications for citizenship between 2008 and 2013, that number rose to 97 between 2014 and 2017, according to the Population and Immigration Authority.

Rada Emran said that, if elected, she would not be dealing with the politics between Syria and Israel, but rather would focus on improving education and providing services.

“The councils do not have to do with politics. They are about providing services,” she said.

Critics have also argued that the elections inherently do not represent a democratic process because only Israeli citizens can run for mayor.

“They claim these elections are democratic, but when we take their cover off, we find out that is not the case,” said Tishreen Abu Salih, an activist and student at Tel-Chai College in northern Israel. “A small minority only is allowed to run for mayor. How can it be democratic that only a small minority is given the right to run the affairs of the majority?”

While Israeli law allows all residents to serve as members of local councils, it only permits citizens to become mayors.

In total, 20.6 percent of the Druze in the Golan have Israeli citizenship and the rest have residency status, the Population and Immigration Authority said.

Dawlan Abu Salih, a candidate for mayor in Majdal Shams, on October 23, 2018. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

However, Dawlan Abu Salih, 40 and a mayoral candidate in Majdal Shams, argued residents of his village should act pragmatically.

“One can constantly say they are against the elections, but at the same time they need to know they are not going to be able to cancel them. So they should work with them as much as they can to do what is best for their hometown,” said Abu Salih, who previously served as Majdal Shams mayor for ten years by government appointment. “They should do that so the best people are in the position to provide services.”

A total of 8,130 people have the right to vote in Majdal Shams, according to the Interior Ministry.  Nonetheless, only some 10 to 14 percent of those with the right to vote will actually cast a ballot, Abu Salih predicted. (In the last municipal elections in Israel, 50% of eligible voters turned out to the polls.)

Rami Zeedan, a professor at the University of Kansas, who has written extensively about local government in Israel, also said he expects a low turnout for the elections.

On a commercial street in Majdal Shams, five out of six people who spoke to The Times of Israel said they do not plan to vote.

“I am not going to vote because I do not want to get involved in politics,” Amala, who declined to give her last name, said at a convenience store.

Munir Rabah, 52, and the one person who said he planned to vote, said, “I think it’s important to vote because we should be able to choose our representatives.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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