Reporter's notebook'We feel part of the Israeli nation'

On Israel’s northern fringes, support for Netanyahu strong among minorities

Voters in Ghajar on Lebanon border proudly back Likud as turnout is high; in nearby Buq’ata in Golan, Druze largely shun the ballot amid signs of slow shift to accepting the state

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Druze residents of the village of Buq'ata in the Golan Heights on October 21, 2018. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)
Druze residents of the village of Buq'ata in the Golan Heights on October 21, 2018. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

GHAJAR and BUQ’ATA — Israel likes to imagine itself as a country with borders, a clear and permanent line demarcating where the Jewish state ends and an Arab neighbor begins.

But in many places, the edges of Israeli-controlled territory would be more accurately described as a frontier, a permeable region in constant flux that is mostly, but not, entirely Israeli; a place where the residents define themselves in much the same way.

Here on Israel’s frontiers, election day is a decidedly quiet affair.

In Buq’ata, one of the four Druze towns in the Golan Heights, there are no campaign signs hanging at intersections, and many young residents are not sure which school contains the local polling stations.

Many are working on this national vacation day, waiting on Jewish Israelis taking advantage of the day off to tour the area and dine in local restaurants.

In a high school on the western edge of the village, a mile from the border that has cut Buq’ata off from Syria since 1967, the two polling stations are empty except for the election workers. As of 2 p.m., only 74 of the over 700 eligible voters in Buq’ata had cast their ballots.

Only about 10 percent of the town’s residents have taken Israeli citizenship, which gives them the right to vote in national elections. That figure is similar to the percentage in the neighboring Druze communities of Majdal Shams, Mas’ade and Ein Qiniyye, all of which were part of Syria until Israel conquered the Golan Heights in 1967.

Majdal Shams resident Niban told The Times of Israel at the Buqata polling station that she had already voted, but declined to reveal for whom. She expected this round of elections to see even fewer Golan Druze voting than usual.

“There are people who do vote usually, but this year people don’t really want to get involved in politics,” she said in Hebrew. “There are many things that they promise and don’t do. Now, around the time of elections, they promise things, then afterward, nothing.”

Buq’ata residents sit outside the polling station at the local high school on November 11, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Niban said that living next to Syria and Lebanon shapes how she votes: “Living in this place here on the border, security is important for us.”

Majdal Shams has around 1,300 eligible voters, out of a population of over 12,000.
Niban’s husband Samr, a travel agent and apple farmer, is overseeing the Buq’ata polling stations.

“In general, most people here tend toward the right,” he said, adding that there are also Meretz voters, partly because of candidate Ali Salalha, number 4 on the party list, who hails from the Galilee Druze village of Beit Jann.

Majid, 55, a security guard from Buq’ata, has not applied for citizenship, and therefore does not vote. “At my age, I don’t think that it’s important to me.”

Still, he said that he wants to see Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu emerge victorious. “In coronavirus, in other places, he proved himself,” he said, adding that most of his Druze friends agree.

Druze Israelis Samr (L), Niban (C), and Salim in Buq’ata, November 1, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Salim, an IDF veteran from Daliyat al-Karmel near Haifa, said that the 2018 nation-state law — which was seen as sidelining Israel’s non-Jewish populations — is still at the front of people’s minds. “The nation-state law made us feel very bad,” he explained. “Lapid, Liberman, everyone promised to cancel it, but no one did anything. The law established that there are Jews and then there are non-Jews. They put us in a basket with all the non-Jews, and that hurt us.”

He added that the law affected the Druze in the Galilee more than in the Golan because they serve the country and feel fully Israeli.

“The Druze [of the Galilee] vote like the Jews, not like Arab Israelis,” Salim said. “You’ll see Druze politicians in all the parties.”

“Ostensibly, the left is for us and the right is racist. But in practice, everyone is the same; we don’t feel that the left-wing parties do anything more than the right.”

Changes in the Golan

Despite the outward apathy among the Golan Druze, currents of change are growing stronger.

This round of elections has seen Israel’s first Druze-led party throw its hat into the ring.

Dawn Social Power founder Wajdi Taher at the grave of Sultan Ibrahim in Mas’ade, on election day, November 1, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Dawn Social Power chief Wajdi Taher told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that of all Druze politicians, he has the best chance of entering the Knesset in this election.

“If the other parties respected you, they would’ve put you in the top ten,” said Taher, referring to Druze politicians way down on party slates. “If Likud respected the Druze, they would’ve reserved the 28th spot for minorities, not the 44th spot.”

Sitting at a table next to the grave of Sultan Khalil Ibrahim, Taher said his party — known as Shachar in Hebrew — would not join a Benjamin Netanyahu-led government, but is open to serving in a coalition headed by Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid. The party is seen as having no chance of entering the Knesset, however.

The 45-year-old resident of the Druze town of Mas’ade in the Golan Heights was a schoolteacher, lifeguard and social activist before entering politics as senior adviser to the Gesher party’s Orly Levy-Abekasis when she was community empowerment and advancement minister in the Likud-led government from 2020 to 2021. He quit when she joined the Likud party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif at his office in Jerusalem on August 1, 2018. (Prime Minister’s Office)

Taher explained that his party, which focuses on social issues and economic justice, is made up of eight distinct groups, including students, pensioners, Bedouin, Druze and teachers. There are four Jews and four Arabic-speaking minorities on the list.

Though he suffered socially among his Golan Druze neighbors for taking Israeli citizenship, finding himself barred from weddings and funerals, he said views about Israel are changing.

“Since the violence in Syria, Druze in the Golan [Heights] changed direction and said there is no more Syria and we don’t want to be there,” Taher explained. “I’m talking about the younger generation.”

There are still avidly pro-Syrian elders who make noise, he said, but they don’t have the power they once did.

“Their decisions are binding only for themselves. They can’t even decide whether they drink water out of a glass cup or a plastic cup at home. They can’t even decide for their wives, their sons, their daughters.”

Likud’s Lebanon stronghold

In contrast to the Druze communities on the Golan Heights, voting is brisk in the village of Ghajar, which straddles the Israeli-Lebanese border.

In the 2021 elections, over 48% of the 1,739 eligible voters exercised their right to cast a ballot. Election officials at the school serving as the polling station told The Times of Israel that turnout seems even higher this year, weeks after Israel removed all restrictions on entry into the village and hordes of tourists began arriving.

The town, which lies on both sides of the border, had been a closed military zone since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, with special permission required to enter or exit.

Yisroel (L) and Dovi man the voting station for COVID-19 patients in Ghajar, November 1, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“Everyone is voting,” said Naif, a young resident walking among the new food trucks in the town center that were recently opened to cater to the weekend crowds. He hadn’t yet decided for whom to vote, however.

Others were showing up to vote in a similar state of mind. Malik, a retired construction worker, walked up to the school while still trying to figure out whom to support. “This one’s our friend, and this one’s our friend. In my opinion, everyone is good. We’ll judge them based on their actions.”

Nearby, Dovi and Yisroel, two young Chabad Jewish men, cheerily manned the local polling station for those with COVID-19. No one has shown up, they said.

Muhammad, an accountant, didn’t want to say whom he had voted for, but stressed that his entire family had voted. “The village is split,” he explained. “They vote for whoever helps our society.”

Spanish UN peacekeepers patrol in the disputed Shebaa Farms area between Lebanon and Israel, overlooking the divided border village of Ghajar, southeast Lebanon, February 24, 2015. (AP /Hussein Malla)

Residents said that the recent maritime boundary agreement with Lebanon does not play into their decisions and isn’t at the front of their minds.

The villagers, many of whom hold Lebanese citizenship in addition to Israeli, largely support the Likud party and, unexpectedly, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. In 2021, both parties captured 30% of the vote, with Gideon Saar’s New Hope party — which is now running as part of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party — coming in third with 16%.

Arab parties and Meretz didn’t even crack 3%.

“We feel part of the Israeli nation,” explained M., a teacher at the school.

Netanyahu supporters in Ghajar aren’t shy about voicing their opinion of the former prime minister.

Ghajar’s main square on Election Day, November 1, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“I like him, because prices were low when he was in power,” said Naif, an engineer in a plastics factory. “He made peace with Dubai, he made peace with other countries. He’s a good leader.”

M. agreed. “Netanyahu is the most qualified for prime minister. He’s strong, he’s a man of security, he’s wise. He’s created good relationships with many countries. The others aren’t experienced.”

But they feel left out by all of Israel’s political parties.

“No one cares about Ghajar, only during elections,” M. said. “I want parties to come into the village, and invest in the village, and to understand the village, and to deal with the village’s problems.”

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