Druze community feel torn between Israel and Assad

Druze community feel torn between Israel and Assad
A generation gap is at the heart of an identity crisis in the Druze community in the occupied Golan, reports Nino Orto.
5 min read
25 April, 2018
Druze are navigating multiple identities [Getty]
In Hatem's room, a large poster reads: "Don't dream your life. Live your dream." However, for Hatem - as for many youngsters from Majdal Shams - life is not so simple.

Since 2011 and the outbreak of the Syrian War, the 25,000 members of the Druze community in the Golan Heights have been living in a delicate, complicated situation.

The Druze have identified as a religious monotheist ethnic group since the 11th century, revering Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, and considering Moses, Jesus and Mohammed to be their prophets. They live mainly in the mountainous region of the Golan Heights. As minorities in Israel, they have civil rights, but the precarious position of being an Arab in a Jewish country makes them vulnerable.

Split between two identities, the Druze are facing many problems because of their status as "quasi-citizens" within Israel and their family connections with Syria.

"We are stuck in limbo. We are neither Israeli nor Syrian," says Hatem Khater, a 20-year-old professional, gesturing at the Israeli and Druze flags on a fresh spring afternoon in the Golan Heights.

In the past two years, the problem of identity for this minority inside Israel has become more tricky. As Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his allies have got the upper hand in the war, it is becoming more likely that new conflict will be brought to the Syrian Golan - territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war and key to the dispute between the Syrians and Israelis.
We feel a hundred percent Syrian, even if we are not with Assad... But who in their right minds would go back to Syria now?

The Golan Heights has been Israel's quietest border for decades; since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. However, in the past year, changes in the balance of power in Syria and the advance of Assad's forces towards the north-west of the country have changed the equation.

The young Druze live in two different worlds where deep contrasts exist. They purchase and use both Israeli shekels and Syrian pounds and speak both Hebrew and Arabic.

"My life is on hold. I would stay here rather than come back to Syria," says Felaq, a 19-year-old woman working in a popular cafe in Majdal Shams.

"Here we have all the opportunity and democracy and we live well - even if we don't have the same freedom as the Jewish citizens. The older generation would like to return to Syria because they were born there and they have an emotional connection, but we don't have any - so why should we go back?" 

Many young Druze are struggling - part of the process to become an Israeli citizen and to obtain a passport is through military service, which most refuse for fear of retaliation from their families.

For many, neutrality seems the only way to avoid condemnation  - but it also means being stateless.

"I am against Assad, he is a dictator, and to be honest I don't want to come back to Syria in any case, even if I feel like I am a foreigner here," says Hata, a student from Mas'aada. "It is not an easy statement because my political choices cause frequent arguments with my parents."

This generation gap is a flashpoint for confrontation within the Druze community. The desire for freedom and self-determination of millennials collides with the pride in Arab and Syrian identity which define the older generations.

"We feel a hundred percent Syrian, even if we are not with Assad," says Ahmed, a high school techer in Mas'aada.

"But who in his right mind would come back to Syria now?"
We do not want any link with the Israeli government. We are Syrian and we live in an occupied land taken from Syria
Ahmed was meeting after school hours with other teachers that were too scared to talk. They cannot speak to journalists because of employment issues - but Ahmed doesn't seem to care what others think.

"The process ongoing in the Golan Heights is really hard to understand because everyone has their own point of view and it is a situation with have been forced into," he continues.

"We have to adapt because the Israelis are not very pleasant to us. However, we are very hard workers and we are very welcome because of our skills. Nobody has any problems and we have freedom even if we are not considered totally Israeli."

A man in his fifties, overhearing the conversation, shouts: "We do not want any link with the Israeli government. We are Syrian and we live in an occupied land taken from Syria."

As there are many different opinions within the community, with most preferring to stay neutral, there are also differing grades of hostility towards the Israeli occupation.

One of the most active people opposing the occupation here and supporting the Syrian government is, without a doubt, Ata Farhat.

He is the founder of the Golan Times newspaper and a correspondent for Syrian public television and the national daily Al Watan. His desk is full of portraits of the Assad family and Syrian flags of all size.

The paradox is that the country in which he lives is of Assad's worst, and perhaps most bitter, enemies.

"Despite the outbreak of the war in Syria and the new political environment which has deepened feelings and complicated the emotional situation, almost all the Druze community here favour a free Syria," he says.

Farhat's position is clear - although he goes on to explain how his struggle against Israel's occupation of the Golan is exclusively a political fight. However, this doesn't mean it is less dangerous. "I've been jailed two times for a total of four years just because of my work and my political ideas. The Israeli government accused me of having contacts with Syrian security officers - but I was only discussing news. I was just doing my job and I will continue to do it. I stand for Assad and for Syrian people."

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specializes in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek.