Druze divided ahead of first-ever Israeli vote in occupied Golan Heights
The Druze community in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is deeply divided ahead of the first-ever local municipal elections, with boycott supporters urging voters to abstain and candidates to withdraw.
Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the territory in 1981 - a move that is not internationally recognized.
The majority of the 23,000 Druze in the occupied Golan have refused to become Israeli citizens, instead remaining "permanent residents" of Israel.
Since the annexation, Israel has appointed representatives to local councils in the Golan's four Druze villages.
But a yearning by more educated, younger Druze for economic opportunities and greater integration into Israeli society, coupled with a realization that the territory will not return to Syria in the near future, has sparked a desire by some to control their own fate, even if it means cooperating with what's still seen as an occupying power.
That, along with a sense that the appointees did not properly represent the community, prompted a group of young lawyers from the area to appeal to Israel's Supreme Court for a say in choosing their leaders.
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50 years of Israeli occupation
The Golan Heights carry much strategic importance for Israel, especially since Iranian forces fighting in Syria began encroaching towards the Israeli border zone.
Some 20,000 Israeli settlers live in more than 30 settlements in the occupied territory, and the Golan has become a centrepiece of Israel's tourist and agricultural industries.
Israel has long lobbied world powers to recognise its annexation of the territory, with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu raising the issue in his first White House meeting with US President Donald Trump in February 2017.
Many Druze fear the push for a vote - the first since Israel occupied the Golan Heights more than 50 years ago - represents another bid by Israel to try to legitimise its control.
The chasm has pitted community elders who pledge fealty to Syria and activists opposed to Israel's occupation against those with looser ties to their ancestral homeland who seek to have a stake in how their own communities are managed.
"I understand the opposition and where it comes from because we still live it. The Golan Heights is occupied and that is a fact. No one can deny that. On the other hand, we have been in this situation for more than 50 years," Sameera Rada Emran, who is running to head her village's local council, told The Associated Press.
"There are young people who need to live and we need to provide them a healthy and beneficial environment that allows them to progress."
The community, however, largely still sees itself as inextricably linked to Syria, and many hope the territory might one day be returned to Syria as part of a peace deal.
'People will boycott'
Boycott supporters have been holding meetings to convince - or pressure - candidates not to run and voters to abstain and several would-be candidates have already withdrawn.
Demonstrations against the elections have been held and a general strike is being planned for election day on 30 October.
"We consider ourselves Syrian Arabs under Israeli rule, under Israeli occupation," said Sheikh Hayel Sharaf, a religious leader who opposes the polls. "For sure the Golan people will boycott."
The divide has meant the frenzy of election campaigning has skipped over the sleepy Druze villages. Candidates have had to keep campaigning a hushed, low-key affair, with many appealing to voters through social media and quiet gatherings indoors.
Observers say they expect turnout to be low, in part because of the boycott, but say it could grow in coming elections as the taboo surrounding voting erodes.
Agencies contributed to this report.
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