MGHAR, Israel (Oct. 3)
At times it seemed as if the entire Druse community — all 100,000 of them — had decided to come celebrate the release of one of their own: Riad Ali. An endless line of people streamed into his father’s backyard in this predominantly Druse village to share their joy over Ali’s freedom.
Palestinian terrorists abducted Ali, a television producer who has worked with CNN for the last two years, on Sept. 27 from a CNN car while he was on assignment in Gaza. Ali, 44, was held hostage for some 24 hours and was released after the personal intervention of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
The reason for his abduction was unclear. His captors made no demands, except for ordering Ali to make a videotaped statement that the Druse should not serve in the Israeli army.
He had no problem making that statement. Although the Druse are the only non-Jewish community which serves compulsory military service, Ali never served. He considers himself an Arab, and believes that the Druse community should stay out of the bloody feud between Israel and the Palestinians.
Indeed, the incident accentuated the Druse dilemma, balancing their Arab heritage and their Israeli identity.
Majalli Whbee, a Druse Knesset member from the Likud Party, warned the Palestinians against kidnapping any more members of the Druse community.
“They are opening a front which could develop into a difficult chapter of bloodshed. We, as Druse, will know how to cope with them,” he said.
Still, following his release, among Ali’s first comments was to thank Arafat for his intervention.
Although the precise motive for the abduction remained fuzzy — some suggested that it was an attempt to scare off Israeli Arab journalists and leave the coverage of the Gaza scene to local Palestinian reporters — many shared Whbee’s view that Ali’s ethnicity played into the kidnapping.
Another Druse Likud Knesset member, Ayoob Kara, said he was not surprised by Ali’s abduction.
“Ever since the outbreak of the intifada, the Palestinians try to draw a wedge between the Druse community and the State of Israel, urging the Druse not to serve in the Israeli army because of their Arab ethnic origin,” Kara told JTA.
So far the effort has been unsuccessful. Most young Druse serve willingly in the army. Only a small minority become consciousness objectors, like Ali did. Many serve in the border police, a unit that comes into daily contact with the Palestinians in the territories and east Jerusalem.
“We serve willingly because we appreciate living in a democratic country which, unlike the neighboring countries, does not confront tyranny and radical Islamization,” Kara added.
Back home, protected by the warm embrace of his family and the entire Druse community, Ali was visibly moved by the hundreds, if not thousands, who came to celebrate his release. He would not make any statement to the media, except for thanking those who had helped secure his release. “It is too early to tell the entire story,” he said.
Although many in the community differ with Ali on the military service issue, it was no time for arguments. They came from all villages, young and old, clergymen dressed in long robes and headscarves, soldiers and conscientious objectors.
They hugged and kissed Ali and his father, and then sat down on one of dozens of chairs lined up around the courtyard. Ali hardly had time to talk to anyone. The guests kept coming and coming.
“At times of need, we are all one,” said one of the family’s relatives, a retired army lieutenant colonel. “As soon as we heard that Riad was abducted, everyone rushed here to offer help. We were determined not to let go until Riad’s safe return.”
Israel’s 100,000 Druse are ethnically Arab. However, Druse — there are approximately 600,000 in the Middle East and nearly 700,000 throughout the world — are not Muslims. They split off from Islam in the 11th century and remain secretive about their beliefs. As such, the Druse have often been persecuted by their Muslim neighbors.
During Israel’s War of Independence, then, it was only natural for them to side with the Jews. They did not flee like the Palestinians, but remained in their villages, identified with the fledgling state, and eventually accepted compulsory military service — from which other Arab citizens of Israel are exempt.
Today, three Druse organizations are engaged in a campaign to exempt Druse youth from military service.
Jihad Sa’ad, secretary of the “Initiative Committee” against compulsory service, said that their call is becoming more and more effective, and that more and more young Druse are trying to evade military service.
“Compulsory service did not bring us any progress. The Druse community is just as neglected as the Arab community which is exempt of military service,” Sa’ad told JTA. “We prefer that rather than serving three years in the army, our youngsters invest their time in education and develop people,”
Several months ago, a group of Arab security prisoners, upset over mistreatment by Druse wardens, sent an open letter to the Druse leadership in Israel, warning of the potential for an open confrontation between the two communities.
They called for the leaders’ collective resignation and demanded an official Druse apology before the Palestinian people. “The only enemy must be the occupation,” wrote the prisoners.
Nothing happened. The Druse continue serving in the army, as well as in the border police and in the prison system. In fact, the commander of the border police is Maj. Gen. Hussein Fares, a Druse, and Maj. Gen. Yussuf Mishlib is coordinator of government affairs in the territories.
But Druse from across the political spectrum agree Israel has, historically, done too little to demonstrate gratitude to the Druse for their loyalty to the state.
Unemployment in the Druse villages is higher than the national average. Once young Druse complete their three years of military service, they often come back home to confront difficulties finding jobs.
In this regard, army service may even set Druse back: While young Druse serve the in country’s military, their Arab neighbors can complete university studies.
“Obviously, the employer will prefer an Arab educated person over a Druse who has just come out of the army,” said Kara.
Kara complained that Israel has done very little to industrialize Druse villages, while giving tax benefits to neighboring Jewish development towns.
However, he added, Ali’s kidnapping only strengthened Druse ties with Israel.
“We prefer to live here, in a country where no one abducts journalists, be they Druse or others,” Kara told JTA.