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Are the Druse overlooked by Israel?

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Ayoob Kara, a Druse Knesset member. (Knesset)

Ayoob Kara, a Druse Knesset member. (Knesset)

SAJOUR, Israel, May 9 (JTA) — For Likud Knesset member Ayoob Kara, it was a political dream come true. As he descended from his car at the home of Nidal Ibrahim in Sajour shortly before the May 2 Likud Party referendum on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from the Palestinians, Kara felt as if all the village’s notables had come out to greet him. Kara came to this small Druse village in the Upper Galilee to convince 305 Likud members — out of 3,600 residents — to vote against Sharon’s plan to pull Israeli troops and settlements out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. It was a lesson to be remembered in Israel’s internal politics. In the best Druse tradition, the village elders, dressed in their bright white head scarves, formed a long line to greet the guest. Kara is one of two Druse Knesset members, both of whom are in the Likud. Kara, 49, was all smiles. He moved from one sheik to another, warmly shaking hands, exchanging compliments and visibly enjoying the VIP reception. Although Kara’s political mentor, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that he was in favor of Sharon’s plan, Netanyahu’s political minions worked hard to defeat it. Kara was among them: He went from village to village to try and win over voters — lining them up against Sharon’s plan. Some 8,000 out of the Likud’s 193,000 members are non-Jews, including 5,000 Druse. With such a small number of Israelis eligible to vote, every vote in the referendum mattered. In the end, only two out of 18 Druse villages voted against Sharon’s plan, both by a slim majority. One of them turned out to be Sajour. Nevertheless, Kara boasted to JTA that he had scored a victory. The victory, he said, was that only 1,687 Druse Likud members voted — a third of eligible Druse voters. Most Druse Likudniks preferred to stay at home, sending the message: What’s in it for us? On the face of it, non-Jewish Likud members should have been at the forefront of support for Sharon’s pullout plan. The idea of a Greater Israel holds no sway for Israel’s non-Jewish population. Israel’s 100,000 Druse residents speak Arabic and are native to Arabia, though many take pains to distance themselves from Muslim Arabs. There are about 600,000 Druse in the Middle East and another 100,000 elsewhere in the world. They split from Islam in the 11th century and often have been persecuted by Muslim majorities in their host countries. During Israel’s War of Independence, many Druse sided with the Jews. Unlike the local Palestinian Arabs, the Druse did not flee their villages, embraced the fledgling Jewish state and eventually accepted Israel’s compulsory military service. Israeli Arabs are exempt from military duty, though they may apply to serve as volunteers. But precisely because Jews and Druse often hail the “blood bond” between the two people, frustration runs high in the Druse community. Unemployment in Druse villages is higher than the national average. Once young Druse men complete their three years of military service, they sometimes return home to compete in the job market with Arab neighbors who have used the intervening years to attain university degrees. “Obviously, the employer will prefer an Arab educated person over a Druse who has just come out of the army,” Kara said. Kara complained that successive Israeli governments have done little to industrialize Druse villages, while giving tax benefits to neighboring Jewish development towns. “My village of Daliat al-Carmel has only one textile factory, which was set up 30 years ago. Neighboring Yokne’am, which is about the same size, is overcrowded with industrial plants,” Kara said. When Kara arrived in Sajour to campaign against Sharon’s plan, some 50 village notables sat quietly while Kara talked in Ibrahim’s spacious home. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something for your village and community,” Kara told his hosts. “The government has ignored the Druse community. You are worse off then your Arab neighbors. Show them that you are not in their pockets. Vote against the disengagement to protest the government’s disengagement from the Druse community.” Audience members clapped their hands politely. Kara’s message was clear: Even if you believe that getting out of Gaza is good for Israel, you should cast your vote against the plan to punish Sharon for doing too little for the Druse community. According to Druse traditions of respect, no one dared to speak out against the guest’s presentation. But when it came time to vote, Kara’s victory in Sajour was rather modest — only a slim majority voted against the plan. Kara says his greatest frustration is personal. Although he was the first non-Jewish Likud Knesset member elected to the party’s list thanks to Jewish votes — he was not in a reserved “non-Jewish slot” — Kara did not get the Cabinet-level ministerial post he had hoped for. Instead, he was named chairman of the Knesset’s anti-drug committee. Kara mentions his personal story as a sign of the government’s failure to integrate the Druse into Israel society. But other signs point to the success of Druse in Israel. Maj. Gen. Yussuf Mishlib serves as coordinator of government affairs in the Palestinian-populated territories, the highest-ranking Druse officer ever to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. As far as Kara is concerned, that’s the exception that proves the rule. “We wish integration in the public sector would be as successful as it has been in the defense establishment,” Kara said. “We still have a long way to go.” Another Druse Knesset member, Majalli Whbee, who is a retired IDF colonel, disagrees. “He is pulling your leg,” Whbee said. “The people you met in Sajour are marginal among Druse members of the Likud.” Like Kara, Whbee, 50, spent the few days before the Likud referendum going from one Druse gathering to another. But unlike Kara, he campaigned for Sharon’s plan. Whbee served as Sharon’s adviser for Arab affairs when Sharon was foreign minister and in his first term as prime minister. Whbee was confident that eventually most Druse Likud members would vote for Sharon’s plan, and he was right. “Ayoob Kara has no God and no ideology. He is simply gathering forces for the next elections,” Whbee said. “He knows that his Druse audience does not really care much for the settlements, so he exploits the case of deprivation.” Whbee’s comments demonstrated an unusual political phenomenon: Two Knesset members of the same political party, both respectable members of the same ethnic community, on opposite sides of the political fence. Whbee agrees that Israel’s establishment has neglected the Druse community, but he argues that it mostly is due to mismanagement, not anti-Druse discrimination. “Frankly, I also blame our own mayors, who have always been given funds and spent them in dubious ways,” he said. But Kara says the problem is much too deeply rooted to be blamed on budgets and mismanagement. “It is our luck that I was elected as Knesset member,” he said. “It is mostly thanks to me that the Druse community does not adopt hostile views similar to those of the Arab community. But I am not so sure how long I will be able to hold out.”

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