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As conflict rages, Druze loyalty to Syria persists

A statue in the middle of the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights commemorating a rebellion against French colonial rule.  (Ben Sales/JTA)

A statue in the middle of the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights commemorating a rebellion against French colonial rule. (Ben Sales/JTA)

MAJDAL SHAMS, Israel (JTA) — At first glance, the identification cards of young Druze men looked identical to those of any Israeli, with a number, photo, name and address.

The only difference is the citizenship line: Instead of listing "Israeli,” most of the Druze cards are blank.

“If someone takes citizenship, he’s labeled as an extremist,” said Wafa Abusela, 19, sitting with his friends in a cafe in Majdal Shams, a Druze city in the northwest corner of the Golan Heights. “People won’t talk to him.”

A secretive offshoot of Islam, the Druze community spans the territory of Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and their allegiances are similarly fragmented. Druze who live in the Galilee are citizens of the Jewish state, but the Golan Druze rejected offers of citizenship after Israel annexed the territory in 1981, retaining their loyalty to Syria. Of the 20,000 Druze living on the Golan, only a small fraction hold Israeli citizenship.

There’s little evidence to show this is changing. According to Interior Ministry figures, 20 Golan Druze requested Israeli citizenship in 2012 – a substantial jump over the two to five that did so annually in previous years, but still a minuscule percentage of the total population.

But as the Syrian civil war continues to rage just over the border, the Golan Druze say they are grateful for the stability and security that Israel affords — even as they still eschew the idea of becoming citizens, citing pressure from their parents and the fear of reprisals should the Golan ever revert to Syrian control.

"A gap between Israel and Syria is standing out now with the civil war," said Shmuel Shamai, a professor at Tel Chai College and the Golan Research Institute. "The young people talk about the subject of human rights more, and all the murder happening in Syria, the young people don’t identify with it."

Young Druze, Shamai said, feel less connected to Syria than their parents, though "they’re still not going to be doing pro-Israel activity."

"People understand that there’s democracy, that people can say what they want," said a Druze employee of the Interior Ministry, who has Israeli citizenship but did not give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media. "People here are happy with Israel. It’s good for me here. I was born here.”

A 25-year-old gas station attendant illustrates the competing claims on Druze loyalty. Recently returned from Syria, he knows the horror stories unfolding on the other side and feels safer in Israel, where he hopes to begin working soon as a dentist. But loyalty to his family has made adopting Israeli citizenship an impossibility.

“My father taught me that we are Syrian,” he said. "The feeling is, if you don’t want to be Syrian, leave the state. My home is here. My parents are here.”

Druze are generally loyal to the country in which they live. Unlike Israeli Arabs, many Galilee Druze serve in the Israeli army. 

But many residents of Majdal Shams consider the Golan to be Syrian and, according to some reports, still support the Assad regime. A few said the rebels are agents of foreign interests — a belief promoted by the Assad regime.

“Whoever supports foreign entities doesn’t understand politics,” said Sayed, 43, who was born in Majdal Shams and did not give his last name. “We support the state, and whoever supports the state supports Assad.”

Despite their divided loyalties, the Druze community is often held up as an exemplar of the Jewish state’s success in protecting the rights of ethnic minorities, with Jewish tour groups routinely making stops in Druze villages to enjoy local hospitality. 

“We and the Druze live in full cooperation,” said Ori Kalner, deputy head of the Golan Regional Council. 

Druze contractors have managed much of the Golan’s recent construction, Kalner said, and the council is developing a shared industrial park with Majdal Shams.

Still, there’s a sense among some Druze that Israel’s rule over the Golan won’t last forever. The Interior Ministry employee said that fear of an Israeli withdrawal keeps many residents from taking Israeli citizenship or openly supporting the rebels. Residents are scared, she said, that should Assad survive and come to regain control of the Golan someday, they will be punished for betrayal.

“In the end, we’ll go to Syria,” said Safi Awwad, who says he feels “almost” like an Israeli. “The Golan belongs to Syria.”

Rafi Skandar disagreed, insisting that parental pressure against accepting Israeli citizenship would recede.

“In another five years,” Skandar said, “everyone will have Israeli citizenship.”

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