Updated: May 3, 2021
Deciding with which group of Israelis to start in the Tapestry of Israel series was easy. The Druze, of course. Why? Well, most tourists have heard of Christians and Muslims and even Bedouins… but who has ever heard of the Druze? Or who can tell me one thing about them? I usually get the “Who? the Druids?” response and it gives me great joy and purpose to teach and introduce these fabulous neighbors of mine to those who don’t know them.
To learn some general information and understanding about the Druze of Israel you’ll need to join my Druze of Israel virtual tour (https://crossroadsisrael.com/virtual-tours/the-druze-of-israel/). However, there is such complexity within each of these groups of Israeli citizens that I will select one topic that did not get enough attention in the virtual tour and I believe is worthy of some extra attention.
And with the Druze, the unique status of the Druze of the Golan Heights is one that doesn’t get addressed enough in my virtual tour. It is a topic that merits its own PhD of sorts, one that will have to be written and re-written and re-written every few years, as their unique position has undergone changes and developments.
THE SIX DAY WAR
On June 9th, 1967, the 5th day of the Six Day War, the Israel Defense Forces moved onto the Golan Heights in order to push back the Syrian artillery batteries that were constantly shelling and harrassing the Israeli farmers in the Hula Valley below. This barrage of artillery and cannon fire lasted for 19 years, week in and week out, at times so severe that wars almost broke out because of it. The IDF, acquiesing to pleas from the farmers in the valley, decided to put an end to this harrassment, once and for all.
Although there were casualties on both sides, the battle over the Golan lasted only for a day and a half, and the Israeli advance was only halted when the United Nations, the Europeans and the United States pressured for a stop to the hostilities in an attempt to prevent the Israelis from reaching Damascus, capital of Syria.
The Syrian army put up some opposition but as the day progressed, some of the Syrian senior commanders fled, leaving their soldiers rudderless and with no leadership, and the Syrian defense collapsed. Complete chaos ensued, as soldiers abandoned army vehicles, tanks, bunkers and equipment and
fled by foot towards the Jordanian border to the south or towards Damascus or even crossing the Lebanese border to the north.
Writes Michael Oren in his book Six Days of War:
Compounding the confusion was the exodus of 95,000 Syrian civilains from the Golan. “On June 5, we recieved the order to evacuate,” recalled ‘Ali al-Darwish, a farmer from the village of al-‘Uyan, and a National Guard volunteer. “There was an (Syrian) artillery battalion nearby, and there weas a danger that Israeli shells fired at it might hit the villagers. We took nothing with us, only blankets for the children. We hid in caves for five days until the order came to pull out entirely, and we fled on foot to Jordan… The Druze and the Circassian communities, whose kinsmen in Israel served loyally in the IDF, alone remained to greet the conquerors. (Chapter: Day Six, p. 301)
The Golan Heights emptied of Syrian soldiers and the civilian structure that supported the military establishment in the area. The Golan Heights under the Syrians was a closed military zone, where travel and access was restricted to non-residents and curious on-lookers. As a matter of fact, one of the most fascinating stories of espionage is the one of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who managed to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Syrian government in the early 1960’s and through his connections managed to travel and spy on the Golan, handing Israeli intelligence an invaluable hoarde of information that became ever so useful during the Six Day War. Sadly, Eli Cohen was caught and hung on the gallows in 1965.
… On the Golan, the exodus of the civilian population was neither impelled or inhibited by Israel. Though IDF war plans had made no provision for Syrian civilians, the general staff did issue a specific order (No. 121330) stating: “There is to be no expulsion of villagers from the Syrian Heights or from occuped territories in Syria.” Damascus later claimed that the villageers had been expelled en masse, but in fact few Israelis even came into contact with civilians, most of whom had fled with the Syrian command, well in advance of the attackers. (Oren, Six Days of War, Chapter: Aftershocks, p. 306)
The Israeli Army took over an area of about 40 by 15 miles, 1,200 km2 (500 sq mi), as they pushed the Syrian troops back about 15-20 miles eastward, This relatively small piece of land is now known as the Israeli Golan Heights.
FOUR DRUZE VILLAGES
Interviewed on my Druze of Israel virtual tour, my Druze friend Ehab Zidan, explains: The Druze in Syria and the Levant were used to being conquered by others and living under different flags, having been conquered by the Turks (Ottomans), the French (French Mandate) and eventually becoming Syrians. There had been secret contact between the Jewish leadership under the British Mandate and the Druze under the French Mandate, negotiations about the future of the Levant and plans to work together in case of independence. The Syrian Druze knew of the close and warm relationship between the Druze of the British Mandate and Jewish leadership.
When the IDF made its way through the Golan Heights on June 9th, the Syrian Druze were concerned but not fearful. As a matter of fact, legend tells of the main religious leader, the Sheikh, in Majdal Shams (largest Syrian Druze town on the Golan) who climbed on the roof of the house of prayer, and gave a sermon that explicitly stated that anyone running away from home would be excommunicated! The Sheikh mandated that it was better to stay and take their chances on their land, than to run away.
Ehab cites a Druze saying that states: If you conquer us, we’re not leaving, as this is our land. If you treat us with respect, we’ll be thankful. If you treat us harshly, we’ll be patient.
So that is how the residents of four Syrian Druze villages stayed on the Golan Heights during the Six Day War and came under the administration of the Israeli authorities. Syrian by birth, nationality and allegiance, the Druze remained that way for years.
In 1981, the Israeli government extended Israeli law and administration over the Golan Heights. With this application of Israeli law and juristiction, an offer was made to the Druze on the Golan to take Israeli citizenship. Remember, all those Druze who lived on the Golan until 1967 held Syrian citizenship. The Israeli government now offered those who wished, to forgo being a Syrian and to become an Israeli citizen.
For years, the Golan Heights Druze frowned upon accepting the Israeli offer of citizenship. Less than 10% of them, mostly the younger ones, either because of marriage to an Israeli Druze, employment or academic studies, accepted the offer. This is the way it was for years. The offer stood but there were few takers.
Why is that an important issue? Because without a claim of citizenship, you don’t hold a passport. Without a proper passport, you cannot travel out of the country. However, there are millions of people around the world who hold a laissez-passer, a recognized travel document for people affected by war or geopolitical upheaval. So the Druze on the Golan Heights prefered the inconvenience of a travel document to citizenship in Israel.
THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR
Until March of 2011. That month, exactly ten years ago, marked the official beginning of the Syrian Civil War. A few teenagers sprayed anti Syrian President Assad graffiti on the walls of their school in Dar’a. They were arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the police, driving their parents and community to the streets in protest. Syrian army soldiers and helicopters opened fire on the protesters, killing dozens over the span of a few weeks, sparking the Civil War that rages on till today.
The tragedy is inmense, the damage inconceivable. Numbers vary but it is believed that over 500,000 Syrians have died in the fighting, most of them civilians, around 8 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes and live in unsafe, temporary shelters somewhere around the country and about 5 million Syrian refugees have crossed borders, fleeing Syria to Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and the European Union.
The Syrian Civil War has deeply affected the Druze on the Golan Heights. Generally allied with President Assad and the regime, the Syrian Druze fought in the war and suffered many casualties. Unable to aid their families across the border, the Golan Heights Druze helplessly watched from the safety of the sidelines, as Druze villages across the border and in plain view were bombarded and attacked numerous times throughout the war.
The Golan Heights Druze have been slow to anger, as is their tradition, but after ten years of destruction and despair, many of them are questioning the Druze loyalty to a dictatorship, to the strong handed Syrian government and the killings of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in this bloody conflict. Desperation and utter frustration has set it.
A slow change has begun, mostly in the number of Druze on the Golan Heights applying for Israeli citizenship. If before the Civil War, the number of Israeli passport holders among the Druze of the Golan Heights stood at below 10%, the numbers today, after ten years of Civil War, have reached almost 25%. Most of the applicants are young Druze, who wish to study at quality universities, who wish to travel and to live in the bigger cities.
In the past, the Syrian government gave Druze from the Golan Heights scholarships and free tuition to study in Syrian univerisities and the Druze took advantage of these benefits. The new generation of young Druze is not able to go to Syria due to the dangers of the war. Therefore, most of them are turning to Israeli univeristies for study. Israeli citizens can receive scholarships and discounted tuition at Israeli universities, making it advantageous to be a citizen of the country. The benefits are many. And so it goes.
Non profit organizations and the educational system on the Golan Heights are now focusing more on teaching Hebrew (the language of instruction in Israeli universities) and English. The young Golan Heights Druze are moving to the big cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv, where life for young people is exciting, accepting, free and full of opportunities.
Times, they are a changing. And among the Druze of the Golan Heights, the difficult questions of identity, to be Israeli or not to be Israeli, are more complicated than ever. The younger Druze appear to making a turn towards Israel. We’ll see what happens in the future.