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Druze Villagers Clash with Israeli Authorities over Land Dispute

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A long standing land dispute erupted into violence Monday between Druze villagers in Galilee and Israeli police and park rangers. The incident has political ramifications and may open a rift between the authorities and Israel’s 50,000 Druze, regarded as the most loyal of the country’s minorities.

The clash occurred after a group of Nature Reserves Authority rangers with a police escort dismantled a tent encampment illegally erected in the heart of the Mt. Meron Nature Sanctuary by residents of the Druze village of Beit Jahn. As the authorities passed through the village, they were blocked by Druze in tractors, jeeps and private cars.

Several hundred Druze attacked with knives, steel chains and wooden clubs, and the authorities fled. The melee ended with 23 policemen, six rangers and six villagers injured. Twenty police vehicles were damaged and thrown into wadis. Police officers at the scene said they refrained from opening fire in order not to worsen the situation.

DEMAND FOR LAND

The tent camp was established three weeks ago by the Beit Jahn villagers to press their demand for the return of about 3,000 acres in the nature sanctuary, which they claim to own. According to the authorities, the problem lies in small, privately owned patches of land in the nature preserve. They are too scattered to use efficiently for agriculture. The government recently released 500 acres, but the villagers demand the return of the rest.

The issue is delicate because a conflict with Beit Jahn might spread to the 18 other Druze villages in Galilee. Likud Minister Moshe Arens, who is in charge of Arab and Druze affairs, visited Beit Jahn recently and promised to work for the return of more of the land. Arens has been trying hard to win political support among minority groups, which traditionally favor the Labor Party.

Resolution of the Druze conflict with the Nature Reserves Authority is a political advantage for him because the Authority is an agency of the Agriculture Ministry headed by Laborite Arye Nehamkin.

Observers here say the Beit Jahn Druze reacted militantly because the Mt. Meron land dispute is only the latest of a number of conflicts with the authorities which have cast a shadow on the entire relationship between Israel and its Druze population.

The Druze and the tiny Circassian community are the only minorities allowed to serve in the Israel Defense Force. They have distinguished themselves in combat. Now Druze leaders complain their loyalty has not been rewarded.

They say the government has done little to develop their villages or provide sufficient housing. Even in the army they are barred from certain assignments as “security risks.” A movement has developed inside the Druze community in recent years to renounce the partnership with the Jews. Druze have lived in the country for centuries, and some say now they are Arabs and should reject military service. Many Israeli Druze have family ties with Druze on the Golan Heights who are loyal to Syria. Israeli authorities are therefore concerned that incidents such as the one that occurred at Beit Jahn could spread.

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