Israel's Druze navigate uneasy relations with Jews and Palestinians

TEL AVIV, Eliyahu Kamisher (dpa)- Israel's Arabic-speaking Druze religious minority is routinely thrust onto the frontlines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When two Druze police officers were killed by Israeli Arab attackers, the group's delicate position was brought into the spotlight once again.
In mid-July, two Israeli police officers - Kaamil Shnaan and Hail Stwai - were killed by three Palestinian gunmen near the Haram al-Sharif, known as the Temple Mount to Jews, Jerusalem’s holiest site for both religions.

The attack and subsequent Israeli response in the form of increased security measure at the religious site sparked two weeks of protests and clashes between police and Palestinians.
But the two officers' deaths also sent shockwaves through their Druze community, a tiny Arabic-speaking religious minority in northern Israel that often finds itself on the frontlines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The 120,000 Druze living in Israel, mostly in small towns in the lush hillsides near Syria and Lebanon, practice an esoteric offshoot of Islam. The minority makes up roughly 2 per cent of Israel’s population, but comprises 7 per cent of Israel’s police force.
Over 80 per cent of Druze men are drafted into the Israeli army, a higher rate than among Israel's Jewish population, let alone its Muslim and Christian citizens, who largely oppose military service.
Commander Emad Hassan, Israel’s highest ranking Druze police officer, is a stern, stocky figure. He wears the dark green uniform of Israel’s Border Police and speaks in Hebrew about the role of the Druze in the police.
“Israel is our country and we are an inseparable part of it,” he says from his office in southern Israel. “We are protecting our homes.”
The relationship between the Druze and Israeli Jews has been termed by many as a “covenant of blood,” and it has elevated Druze to the upper echelons of Israel’s security, political and business sectors, while driving a wedge between the Druze and the majority of Israel’s Arab citizens.
Highlighting the divide, a few thousand Israeli Arabs marched in the streets for the funeral of the three dead Temple Mount attackers, with many praising them as heroes who defended the al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy site for Muslims within the complex, from Israeli occupation.
Israeli Arab lawmaker Haneen Zoabi of the Balad party refused to pass along her condolences to the families of the killed Druze officers.
“We apply a national standard to the Arab Druze, meaning that we hold their members accountable for fighting their people,” Zoabi said in a statement posted on Facebook. “The Druze identity does not give them a saving face.”
The split between the two communities can be traced back to 1956, when Israeli leaders reached a deal with Druze religious leaders to draft their young men into the army, says Itamar Radai, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.
“The year 1956 can be seen as a point of no return, when Israel made conscription of the Druze mandatory, unlike the Arabs, and separated the Druze into a religious community distinct from the Muslims with its own religious courts,” says Radai.
Many Druze were actually against the deal, but over time they came to accept it, Radai added.
Another 23,000 Druze live in the Golan Heights, a strategically significant plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War, and later annexed by Israel in a move that was not internationally recognized.
These Druze don’t have Israeli citizenship and reject the Israeli military draft because they largely identify as Syrian. But as the Syrian civil war grinds on, more Golan Druze are reportedly taking up Israeli citizenship.
In the last decades, the bond between Jews and Druze seems to have solidified. "Our partnership of fate and the covenant of life and blood is a cornerstone of our existence in the State of Israel," the Israel Police Chief Rabbi Rami Barchiyahu told the mourning fathers of the two killed Druze police officers in July.
For his part, police commander Hassan has followed in the footsteps of his father Kamal, the first Druze police officer to reach the rank of commander.
The younger Hassan has led operations in Gaza and Jerusalem, and once pinned down a Palestinian suicide bomber threatening to blow himself up. Now, Hassan heads the Southern District division of the Israeli Border Police, with jurisdiction over an area covering roughly two-thirds of the country.
Nevertheless, echoes of the initial Druze opposition from over 60 years ago can still be heard among a minority of the community, like lawyer and activist Yamen Zeidan.
“Israel educates our youth for combat instead of academics,” Zeidan says, “They seek to separate the Palestinian from the Druze.”
Hassan says the relationships between Muslims and Druze in Israel are relatively good. But he adds that the common language he shares with Palestinians does little to improve his relationship with them.
“It’s not interesting to me what he [a Palestinian] thinks about me,” says Hassan at the Border Police's Southern District headquarters, with portraits of Israel's president and prime minister hanging behind him.
“He’s going in a certain way and I know that I’m totally connected to the State of Israel.”

Monday, August 14th 2017
Eliyahu Kamisher

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