IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

For Druze, loyalty depends on location

Broadly supported in much of Israel, the assault on Hezbollah has deeply divided the Druze, a minority group that inhabits areas spanning national borders across much of the Middle East.
Funerals For Israeli Soldiers Killed In Hezbollah Attacks
Israeli Druze religious leaders take part in the funeral of Israeli soldier Wasim Salah Nazal on July 13 in Yanuh, northern Israel. Nazal was killed in an attack by Hezbollah.David Silverman / Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Monday morning, a hand-painted banner flew in the main square of Majdal Shams, the largest Druze community in this hilly region, with an unusual message for Israeli-governed territory:

"Hezbollah is the candle that lights the Arab darkness."

Monday evening, an all-Druze company of Israeli soldiers painted their faces black and green, shouldered their rifles and walked into battle with Hezbollah near Avivim, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the current conflict.

"As a citizen of Israel, I will do my best to serve my country," said Cpl. Kamal Aboud, 19. "The mood is up, the troops are highly motivated."

Broadly supported in much of Israel, the assault on Hezbollah has deeply divided the Druze, a perpetual minority group that inhabits areas spanning national borders across much of the Middle East. Of the estimated 1 million adherents worldwide, the vast majority are in Arab countries such as Syria and Lebanon, where some have achieved high political office. But more than 100,000 live in Israel.

The highly secretive sect, which broke from Islam centuries ago, draws on a variety of traditions for its liturgy, including a belief in reincarnation and a six-volume Book of Wisdom. As a people with strong ties to land they have farmed for generations, the Druze say they take it as an article of faith, as well as a mechanism of survival, to support the country where that land happens to be. But in Israel, whose borders have been revised and reshaped by armed conflict throughout its history, their sense of identity can be even more complicated.

Druze from the Upper Galilee region of the country, who have lived in the Jewish state since its founding in 1948, serve in its military -- unlike Israeli Arabs -- and proudly identify themselves as Israeli. In interviews they seem largely to support the operation being waged in southern Lebanon.

However, the 20,000 or so Druze in the Golan Heights -- which was seized by Israel from Syria in 1967 and subsequently annexed but is still considered occupied territory by much of the outside world -- refuse to hold Israeli passports and say that the vast majority of their community backs Hezbollah.

Fears of a broadening conflict
Many say they fear that Syria will be drawn into the conflict, which began when Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, putting the Druze towns on the front line.

"Conflicts like these can be hard on the Druze," said Shmuel Shamai, a professor at northern Israel's Tel Hai Academic College who has written extensively on the Israeli Druze. He called Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and subsequent 18-year occupation of a security zone in the country's south "particularly challenging" for the group.

"You had Druze fighting on all sides -- in the Israeli army, with the Lebanese and with the Syrian army," he said. Syrian forces had a heavy presence in Lebanon throughout that period.

A reputedly hardy people, the Druze have generally not evacuated their villages during the rocket campaign that has caused as many as half of Israelis in the north to leave their homes. The large, tight-knit structure of Druze families makes it hard for them to uproot, several Druze said.

In the small, predominantly Druze town of Pkiin, north of Haifa, about 35 Hezbollah rockets have crashed to earth since the conflict began nearly two weeks ago, wounding at least two residents. One of the weapons plummeted through a porch railing at the home of Amar Abdullah, 50, who served three years in the Israeli army.

"We strongly support what Israel is doing because the target is Hezbollah, and the support will last as long as the target is Hezbollah," Amman said, reclining on the porch of his hillside home. He said that his grandfather spent much of his life in southern Lebanon and that he still has family there, though his 29 closest relatives live nearby in Pkiin.

Asked about the civilians killed in Lebanon in recent days, Amman replied, "That troubles me greatly, but this is a war, and civilians die in every war."

Amman, a teacher, is quick to show that he is not afraid to criticize his country. As a Druze, he said, he suffers frequent discrimination when applying for jobs or passing through security checkpoints.

"They take care of you when you're a soldier. But when you take off the uniform, it's sometimes a different story," he said, recounting how an uncle finished at the top of his class at an Israeli university but remained unemployed for months after he graduated. "But we believe in Israel and its democracy and we want to stay here. We just want equal rights, but we believe we are better off here than anywhere else."

Sentiments varied starkly in Majdal Shams, a northeastern town of about 10,000 that is close to Syria and Lebanon. Residents barred for almost 40 years from contact with relatives just across the Syrian border sometimes gather with megaphones to shout greetings across a gaping valley.

"I was born in Syria, raised in Syria and I am 100 percent Syrian," said Fayiz Safadi, 63, who tends a herd of 60 sheep. "What's happening in Lebanon is very, very painful."

Several people interviewed said they were afraid to speak out about the conflict. Almost all of those who spoke willingly said they supported Hezbollah.

"About 80 or 90 percent of the people here are against the Israeli actions in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese people are paying too high a price," said Muhammad Safadi, 35, a dental technician. For years, he recounted, he had heard stories of fighting between Israeli and Syrian forces in Majdal Shams and now is worried that those days will return.

"People here think Hezbollah did the right thing and support for them is rising. They needed some Israeli soldiers to trade for the prisoners that Israel has," he said, sipping dark coffee on the porch of the Shani falafel restaurant. "Now Hezbollah must keep fighting until they get what they want. There have been so many casualties that if they stop now it will be for nothing."

Over the past few days, residents said, Hezbollah supporters have held two demonstrations in town. Some residents said support for the group stems in part from the belief that this village and its people will someday return to Syrian rule.

"We live under Israeli occupation and are constantly struggling for our own liberation," said Salman Fakrideed, 52, a construction worker and local political activist. "How could we support what they are doing to the Lebanese?"