Never before had the small church in the Galilee village of Mughar held so many important visitors as it did recently. Even the Vatican’s representative in Israel, Monsignor Pietro Sambi, was there. But it was not a celebration that brought them together Sunday; on the contrary, the special guests were there to help sound alarm bells.
On Feb. 12 and 13, the small Christian community in Mughar suffered what some are calling a pogrom. Their attackers were young Druse hooligans — their neighbors. The riots were ignited by an explosive combination of religion and sex, ignited by a false Internet rumor.
Young Druse stoned their Christian neighbors, smashed and burned cars, burst into homes and vandalized them.
No one died, but 11 people were injured, including three policemen. The riots left a gaping hole in the fragile web of relationships linking Israel’s Christian-Arab and Druse communities and exposed rifts among minority communities in Israel.
Many Christians left Mughar, seeking shelter in Arab villages in the Galilee, comparing what happened in Mughar to what the Jews in Germany experienced during Kristallnacht in 1938.
The village’s elderly residents were unable to restrain the young thugs.
“For 50 years we have nurtured our relations and it was all destroyed in one day,” lamented Kamal Ghanem, who is Druse.
Almost half of Mughar’s approximately 20,000 residents are Druse, about 22 percent are Christian and about 20 percent are Muslim.
According to the story villagers tell, when the Israel Defense Forces entered Mughar during 1948’s War of Independence, the Israeli commander wanted to separate the Druse from the Muslims and Christian Arabs.
But the Druse village head, Hussein Araideh, told the commander, “We are all one.”
On the surface, relations between the three Arab communities in Mughar still are relatively good, but from time to time sparks of friction turn into flames of violence. This time the violence reached a new peak.
The immediate reason was a rumor spread by a young Druse that Christian youths had placed doctored pictures of Druse girls on the Internet, attaching their faces to nude bodies.
The story turned out to be a hoax, but that hardly mattered.
“They would have found another reason to strike,” said a local journalist who refused to be identified.
A combination of economic and social factors also contributed to the violence.
The Druse are ethnic Arabs whose ancestors split from mainstream Islam in the 11th century. There are about 100,000 Druse in Israel, approximately 600,000 in the rest of the Middle East and nearly 700,000 in the rest of the world.
They often have been persecuted by their Muslim neighbors, so during Israel’s War of Independence it was not surprising that the Druse sided with the Jews.
They did not flee like many other Arabs. Instead, they remained in their villages, identified with the Jewish state and eventually accepted compulsory military service.
Some say the military service requirement is at the heart of the problem since it creates a gap between young Druse, who spend three years in the Israeli army, and Christian and Muslim neighbors who do not serve.
After their stints in the military, Druse villagers often are confronted with unemployment, which is above the national average in their villages. While the Druse were serving their country, their Arab peers in many cases have completed their university studies.
“Obviously, the employer will prefer an Arab educated person over a Druse who has just come out of the army,” Likud Knesset member Ayoub Kara said.
On the other hand, Israeli society also offers financial benefits to those who serve in the army, helping to level the playing field.
Arab Christians not only are better educated than Druse, but better off economically. Their churches provide them with spiritual help and educational and welfare services.
As a result, the Druse feel neglected and frustrated. Their leadership is weak and lackluster. No one in the community has been able to fill the shoes of the legendary Sheik Amin Tarif, the spiritual head of the community who died 10 years ago at age 95.
The traditional values that permeate the Druse community — its religious leaders are even opposed to women driving, and more and more young Druse women who used to dress in modern western attire are returning to traditional clothing and veiling their faces — only exacerbate the problem.
Many young Arab girls leave home to study at universities, but the Druse are much stricter about their daughters leaving home.
When young Druse men, who were exposed to western values during their military service, come back home, they often can’t enjoy the benefits of Israel’s Western culture or live with their own traditional values. Some feel stuck in the middle.
The result is frustration, which was directed last week at their Christian neighbors. Last week’s riots should be seen not as an isolated incident but as part of the network of fragile ties and resentments that bind Israel’s non-Jewish communities.
A Druse historian, Keis Firro of Haifa University, says the question of identity lies at the root of the violence.
“In Israel, the Druse are perceived as neither Arabs nor Jews,” he said.
A week after the riots, the picturesque mountain village of Mughar still felt tense. Dozens of police patrols could be seen driving through its winding alleys, and a local reconciliation committee, or sulha, tried to find a formula that could put an end to hostilities.
The Christians complained repeatedly that police failed to stop the violence because much of the village’s security force is Druse.
Zuheir Andreus, editor of the Arabic weekly Kul Al-Arab, claimed that the events in Mughar were an attempt by the Israeli government to divide Israel’s non-Jewish communities.
Firro rejected the conspiracy theory.
A week after the riots, the conflict had changed from a local village fight into communal strife, which could spread to other mixed villages and, possibly, anger the wider Christian world.
Sambi, the Vatican’s representative, said Mughar had become the center of world attention after the “difficult events,” and said the Israeli government was responsible for making sure such events wouldn’t recur.
Police had failed to protect Christians in Mughar, said Sambi, who demanded that residents be compensated for damages. But he also instructed the village’s Christians not to engage in acts of revenge, “which are contradictory with the Christian faith.”
Commissioner Dan Ronen, commander of the Israel Police’s northern command, told the Knesset Interior Committee on Tuesday that police were not at all responsible for the riots.
“Police have no say in the matter,” he said. “Don’t expect police to solve all communal internal conflicts. This is the responsibility of the heads of the communities.”
Gideon Ezra, Israel’s minister of internal security, also rejected allegations that police did not act appropriately against the rioters or that the government had an interest in dividing the communities.
He also dismissed demands by Knesset members from the Hadash Party, which largely is Arab, to set up an inquiry commission into the way police handled the riots.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.