The Druze and military service

 By Samer Swaid (Secretary of the Druze Initiative Committee – an organization that has supported Druze-Palestinian conscientious objectors in Israel since its establishment in 1972) - 17 Jun 2012

The Arab Druze minority is one of the Palestinian groups that lived on the current territory of Israel before Zionist immigration began. Since the 1930s, the Jewish leadership in Palestine developed ties with members of the lower echelons of the Druze community’s leadership. Later on, the Israeli state toppled the older Druze leadership and put the collaborators in its place. This step, and the ease with which the state was able to perform it without mass refusal by the community to cooperate with the new leadership, was met with significant criticism within the Druze community. However, the new leadership, aided by the state, was able to suppress voices of dissent and protest that called for a more militant Druze identity vis-à-vis the state or for greater solidarity between the Druze and other Palestinians in Israel.

Another strategy used by the state was to incite the Druze against their Arab brethren, by presenting the Druze faith as unique and distinct from Islam. This led to a “divide and conquer” policy which aimed to separate the Druze from other Palestinian Israelis. This policy also included granting better conditions to the Druze, providing them with greater financial and political support than other Palestinians, registering them as a separate ethno-religious group in official identification documents (“Druze”, not “Arab”), and creating a separate education system for them, where Druze particularism is emphasized. This policy led to increasing Israelization of the Druze, and to forcing on them the idea that in the Middle East conflict the Druze and the Jews share common interests as opposed to Palestinians and Arabs. This policy led both the state and the traditional leadership of the Druze community to an understanding that conscription should be applied to Druze men (it is not applied to other Palestinians), which indeed happened in 1956.

Already when conscription was enforced on Druze men, the Druze community showed considerable resistance to the idea. Hillel Cohen’s book Good Arabs (English version published by University of California Press, 2010) has a chapter dealing with resistance to this provision in the early days. This resistance took the form of meetings and petitions submitted to all decision-makers in the country. 1958 saw the establishment of the Free Druze Young People Organization, which opposed conscription and called for refusal to join the military. Among its founders were the poets Samih al-Qasim and Naef Salim, and the writer Muhammad Nafaa (today the Secretary of the Israeli Communist Party). The organization became popular among the Druze community’s younger generation. It worked secretly, under the conditions of martial law imposed on Palestinian Israelis at the time. Later, members of this organization, together with Sheikh Farhoud Farhoud, whose son was called up to enlist and refused, established the Druze Initiative Committee, with the support of the Israeli Communist Party. This happened on March 15th, 1972 – more than 40 years ago.

The Druze Initiative Committee, as whose secretary I have the honor to serve and whose activity I am glad to coordinate, has made it its goal to call for refusal and support those who refuse to serve in the military. Studies, such as that conducted by Prof. Majid Al-Haj from the University  of Haifa in 2010, show that two thirds of Druze youths would not enlist if given the choice. This piece of data indicates great success for the Druze Initiative Committee in its struggle with meager means against the state’s institutions and the militarist education the state enforces in Druze schools, against all educational values. The “national strength survey”, presented every year at the “Hertzlia conference” (a major gathering of “national security” experts in Israel) has been “warning” for two years now that the Israeli state is “losing” the Druze population, and that ever fewer Druze view themselves as Israeli patriots. There are objective reasons for this distancing of the Druze from their ties with the army, which have to do with the policy of all Israeli governments that discriminates against the Druze just as it discriminates against all other Arab citizens in Israel, despite their conscription. We, in the Druze Initiative Committee, also work for demilitarizing society and manage to put this requirement on the agenda. We work with parents in schools, who begin to show resistance to the instilment of military values in educational frameworks – an activity that enjoys great success. We also support the various struggles against the confiscation of lands – a policy that rapidly strangles Druze towns in Israel.

Two additional Druze organizations were established in recent years, which also support refusal to enlist, but these emphasize the national aspect of refusal, while we focus more on the conscientious aspect.

Over the years, Druze refusers suffered harsh treatment from the military system. Druze refusers were given prison terms double and more than those of other refusers. This was part of a deliberate policy to scare and intimidate young Druze men, and send them a message that those who don’t enlist shall be punished severely. To this one should add the limitations imposed on those who refuse afterwards. Up to 2006, so we calculated, the young men of the town of Peki’in alone (with 5,500 inhabitants, 3,800 of whom are Druze, and only the men are called up) spent a total of 540 years in military prison over the years. This trend continues to this day, though in a transformed way. Now Druze objectors are sent to prison for shorter terms, but there are many such terms before discharge, so instead of spending a year in prison as before, a similar term is today being broken down into 6–7 shorter periods.