The International Writers Magazine: Comment

Druze: A small peace of Israel
Kevin Widdop

Huddled away in the sun-lined Carmel mountains a few miles south-east of Haifa is the community of Daliat el Carmel, home to 13,000 of Israel’s 106,000 Druze. The absence of election paraphernalia on its winding, narrow streets is striking. But there is something else which marks out this village, making it an anomaly in the Arab world: its citizens unbending allegiance to Israel.

As the Labour, Likud and Kadima (‘Forwards’) parties jostle for attention in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv vying for representation in the 17th Knesset, denouncing in unison the election of Hamas in last month’s Palestinian elections, it is the economy which is most important to the Druze. Built-up stone housing and dilapidated buildings characterise the landscape as young men smoke and drink coca cola in the streets below. Average salaries are $200 a month here and many generations have emigrated to Lebanon and Syria in search of an improved standard of living.

Dr Fawaz Kamal, who now works as the Director of the Arabic Press Department in the Israeli Government, is one such case. He says that after completing his Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) service, he studied at Hebrew University and moved to Philadelphia to study for a PhD. In 1948, military service was voluntary for the community but, when the Military Service Law came into effect in 1956, the Druze opted to become the only Arab community in Israel for whom service is compulsory.

"We are very loyal," Dr Kamal says over a substantial lunch of cousa, fuul and pitta in the village. "Druze see themselves as Israeli but they want to keep their identity; we have our roots in the community. What is significant in Israel is that you can live in these small communities."

The Druze are a close-knit, conservative and one-thousand year-old religion. There have been three or four cases of adultery in previous years in el Carmel with the perpetrators chased from the community; homosexuality remains an alien phenomenon. Such behaviour has led to the unflattering adjective kisrawi (idiot) used to describe Druze men from the nearby locality Kisra, near Tefen. Dr Kamal tells me that locals have a strong belief in the soul and in reincarnation; the people will collect their deeds on Judgment Day, he says. They shun material belongings, echoed at the busy shuk, where people flock to buy shisha pipes, mosaic carpets and Israeli flags daily.

As the politicking accelerates before the elections in Israeli towns and cities, the airwaves and television slots clogged by cosmetics-daubed MKs, locals here go about their daily lives. One shopkeeper says: "I intend to vote. But it is such a sure outcome; everybody knows that Kadima are going to win," he says taking a break from customer inquiries. "They are so far ahead."

At the Beit Yad Labanim building which sits in the old Western side of el Carmel, once known as ‘Sir Oliphant’s House’, in memory of British traveller and diplomat Laurence Oliphant who worked towards the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine in the late 19th century and lived in the village, there is a memorial to the loyalty of the Druze soldiers. Alongside photographs of the 355 Druze who have died in Israel’s wars is a local adage emblazoned on the wood-panelled walls. It reads: "Lighter than the eagle, stronger than the liar." Written in Arabic and Hebrew, it is a signature of this community’s devotion to the state, known as taqiyya, which calls for adherence to the government of the country and has led to the highest proportionate loss of people in Israel’s many battles.

There are currently two Druze MKs in the 120-seat Knesset; nine have represented this minority throughout Israel’s 58-year history. The Bedouin and Palestinians are officially the other minorities. ‘Arab citizens of Israel’ represent 12.4 per cent of the electorate, numbering 503,000 of 4.1m voters. The Druze account for 1.5 per cent of the population, yet turnout in el Carmel has been amongst the highest in the Arab communities. In 2001, following the deaths of 12 Arab Israelis in the al-Aqsa Intifada, only 18 per cent of Arabs voted. Polls predict that 30 per cent of the Druze community will sign a cross next to the ‘Ken’ box on their ballots - the Kadima Party.

The rise of Kadima has brought with it an increased awareness of Israel’s Arab minority. London-born MK Yohanan Plesner tells me from Tel Aviv that rates of poverty have grown in the past few years throughout Israel. "Kadima is aiming to bridge these gaps," he says, his confidence and American accent the product of a degree at Harvard. "Israel introduces itself as a remedy for Arab societies. But where we’re at now is a more complicated reality – it is about a struggle for rights."

El-Carmel is the largest Druze settlement in Israel, yet there are few job opportunities available. 40 per cent occupy positions in the defence, army and police industries with a small number relying on the verdant and fertile land that surrounds the village for income. Others travel to kibbutzim to work as electricians and builders.

"Most Druze use the fire place because electricity is so expensive," Dr Kamal says outside Beit Yad Labanim, where the sun bounces off the hills dotted with olive trees and vineyeards, from which the village derives its name - ‘dalia’ means ‘vine’. "The villages here are very poor and have been neglected. Although people have emigrated, some return on the weekends. But people do want to develop the villages; we are very loyal."

© Kevin Widdop March 2006

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