With Syria ablaze, dozens of Golan Heights Druze seek Israeli citizenship

Long loyal to Damascus, many young Druze now consider their best option is to become Israeli

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Statue in Majdal Shams commemorating the Druze uprising against French colonialism in the 1920s. In August 2012, a Syrian flag flew from the sword of Sultan Al-Atrash (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel photo)
Statue in Majdal Shams commemorating the Druze uprising against French colonialism in the 1920s. In August 2012, a Syrian flag flew from the sword of Sultan Al-Atrash (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel photo)

Syrian Druze residing in the Golan Heights once burned ID cards offered to them by Israeli government authorities, after Israeli law was extended to the area in 1981. Three decades later, after 19-months of brutal civil war in Syria, Druze residents of the Golan are flocking to the Interior Ministry by the dozens to request Israeli citizenship.

For decades the flow of citizenship requests among Druze was a mere trickle. Now it is soaring, according to government statistics cited by Maariv on Friday.

Druze have openly sworn allegiance to Syria ever since Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War. Of the 20,000 Druze residing in the main villages of Majdal ShamsMas’adeBuq’ata, and Ein Qiniyye, only a few hundred have accepted Israeli citizenship.

In 1982, Druze leaders declared that anyone who accepts Israeli citizenship and cooperates with the “Zionist enemy” would pay the price of religious and social ostracism by exclusion from community events, funerals, and celebrations.

In recent months, however, citizenship requests have spiked several hundredfold, according to statistics provided by the Population, Immigration, and Border Administration. Most of the applications have been filed by Druze youths whose connection to Syria is generations distant, and whose perception of it has been marred by the bloody civil war.

“It’s mostly youngsters,” a Majdal Shams resident told Maariv, sounding unhappy at the trend. “People are coming to the conclusion that Israeli citizenship is better than Syrian citizenship — [whose government] kills its citizens. They blame Assad for the situation, but Syria is our homeland. Its the country we belong to in the past, present, and future.”

Others do not view Syria in as positive a light. Like President Bashar Assad’s Alawites, the Druze are an empowered minority in Syria that are protected by the Assad regime. Some Druze of the Golan Heights recognize this as a vulnerability. Should Assad be deposed, it may not fare well for the Syrian Druze.

“Now the [Golan Heights Druze] residents internalize that the Assad regime will not last long, and understand that there is no longer any cause for them to return to Syria,” one Buq’ata resident said.

“I believe this trend will only increase,” a Mas’ade resident who holds Israeli citizenship told the paper. “More and more people comprehend that this [Israel] is a well-managed country and it’s possible to live and raise children here. It is preferable to turning into refugees in another country.”

“In Syria there is mass murder, and if [the Druze are] under Syrian control they would likely be turned into the victims of these atrocities. People see murdered children and refugees fleeing to Jordan and Turkey, lacking everything, and ask themselves: Where do I want to raise my children. The answer is clear — in Israel and not Syria.”

A Times of Israel reporter who visited Majdal Shams in August reported that disagreements over whether to maintain allegiances to Assad were tearing the community apart. The new citizen application statistics underline the growth of dissent.

A heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam, Druze have been persecuted by Muslim rulers in Syria and Lebanon — both Shiite and Sunni — since the religion’s inception in the 11th century. Many of the teachings of the Druze faith are kept secret, only known to a select group of elders known in Arabic as Uqqal, or knowledgeable ones. The philosophy of the faith has generally been to display loyalty to the nation in which they live. Many Israeli Druze — those who do not live in the Golan — serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

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