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Druze clash with police over Golan Heights wind turbine project. What are the key issues?

Will Israel's security be harmed by this surprising but predictable protest last week?

Druze protest against the construction of a new wind farm near the Druze village of Majdal Shams, in the Golan Heights, June 21, 2023. (Photo: Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Who are the Druze?

The Druze community is a distinct religious group with roots in Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam. They believe in the oneness of God and honor various prophets including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. They also hold several Greek philosophers in high regard.

Druze do not actively seek converts and they keep their core teachings limited to an initiated group. Although their religion emerged from Shia mysticism, they are not recognized as Muslims by most Islamic groups.

The Druze form a minority within both Israeli and Arab societies, with around 150,000 Druze residing in Israel.

Druze speak Arabic and are considered Arabs in Israel, but consider themselves separate from the broader Arab society and distinct from other Israeli Arabs. Consequently, many Druze in Israel do not align with Israeli Arab political parties and Druze politicians often join non-Arab parties.

The majority of Druze live in the Levant region, encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Israel has the third largest Druze population after Syria and Lebanon. Their community places a strong emphasis on communal values and prioritizes the community over the individual due to their religious teachings and a history of persecution. They exhibit great loyalty to their respective governments and some often attain prominent positions in the military and government in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Unlike the broader Arab society, Druze in Israel are subject to mandatory military service.

Are all Druze in Israel the same?

There are two main groups of Druze in Israel: one group that has been part of Israel since its establishment in 1948 – mostly concentrated in the Galilee region – and another group that became part of Israel after the country captured the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War of 1967.

While Israel annexed the Golan Heights, and with the United States recognizing that sovereignty in 2019, most of the world does not recognize Israeli control over the region. Despite living in Israeli territory, many Druze in the Golan Heights still consider themselves Syrian because of their emphasis on loyalty to their country.

Only a small percentage, about 10%, of Golan Druze possess Israeli identity cards showing their citizenship, which has led to uncertainty about their future. While relations between the Druze community and the Jewish state’s government have been generally peaceful, recent years have seen some changes in this dynamic.

Why are Druze in the Golan Heights protesting?

The year 2009 marked the first signs of protest and discontent when hundreds of Druze demonstrated outside of the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decrying state discrimination.

The protesters claimed that government funding for Druze villages falls significantly short of funding provided to Jewish communities.

“Our soldiers serve at the front, but there’s no state support at home,” according to some protesters.

With the passing of the Nation-State Law in 2018, there was another round of Druze discontent. This time, many Druze community leaders were also involved in protests.  

“We view the law as discriminatory,” Daliyat al-Karmel's Druze Mayor Rafik Halabi told then-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

Druze leaders criticized the lack of an explicit declaration of equality for non-Jewish citizens.

“We’re all proud of the democratic and free State of Israel, where human dignity and freedom are the supreme values,” said Druze religious leader Sheikh Mowafak Tarif at the time. “We’ve never doubted the Jewish identity of the state. We recognized its Jewish character with full equality for its non-Jewish citizens.”

Tarif, however, said the community felt betrayed by the law after decades of faithful service.

“Despite our unconditional loyalty to the state, the state doesn’t see us as equals. The cry of the Druze community is real. They feel, justifiably, that someone seeks to take their Israeli-ness away. We are Israelis, we are brothers.”

Retired Brig.-Gen. Amal Assad, one of the highest-ranking Druze officers, expressed the Druze perspective about their role in Israeli society.

“We came here to tell the entire Israeli nation, with all of the Israeli people, that this country is for all of us,” Assad said. “We were born here, we will die here, we love this country, we have defended it, and we will continue to live here together — Jews, Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Bedouins, as equal brothers. We are all Israelis.”

Seth Frantzman, a fellow of the Middle East Forum, and news editor and senior Middle East correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, wrote that, for many Druze, their usefulness to Israel is conditional.

Following the 2018 protests, Frantzman wrote, “The message is clear: Your usefulness to Israel is a one-way street. Serve in the army and be quiet after. Be the face of diversity and then be quiet.”

He said that many on Israel’s political right call the Druze a “model minority” in the media, to dismiss claims of apartheid. He accused them of being incapable of “looking at a Druze officer who served for decades and listening to his concerns and honoring him.”

The current protests over wind turbines in the Golan Heights echo previous concerns expressed by the Druze community. However, the situation is complex due to the Druze's status in the region. Central to the negotiations is the use of agricultural land in the Golan and broader Druze claims of lack of investment.

The Golan Druze argue that the wind turbine project will negatively impact agriculture and tourism, which are vital sources of income for their community. The Energix company, responsible for the Genesis Project, leased land from local Druze families under 25-year contracts which included compensation clauses in case of withdrawal.  

After signing the contracts, several community leaders protested the project, saying it would harm the Druze way of life. Families wishing to honor their leaders, i.e., to withdraw from the contracts, claim they cannot afford to pay the compensation amounts.

During last week’s protests on Wednesday, Sheikh Mowafak Tarif said, “Today's demonstrations are due to the accumulation of many years of anger against discriminatory policies, particularly on land, urban planning and construction issues.”

Tarif called for Netanyahu to delay any further construction and give time for negotiations regarding land usage.

The Druze in the Galilee region see themselves as Israelis, with a history of loyal service to the country, while the Druze in the Golan Heights do not have the same history. However, there is a strong sense of solidarity among both groups.

The issue of the two Druze communities uniting against Israel’s coalition government has raised concerns for many in Israel, particularly in light of the recent serious wave of Palestinian violence in the West Bank, as well as a simultaneous wave of criminal violence in the Arab sector in Israel, which has included the smuggling of illegal weapons.

Because Druze often serve as border police and in counter-terrorist units of the IDF, due to their fluency in Arabic, the threat of widespread unrest among members of the Druze community is significant.

This concern was enough to justify Netanyahu’s decision to appease Sheikh Tarif by suspending work on the wind turbine farm in the northern Golan Heights on Saturday evening.

What is not clear is if Netanyahu’s promised postponement, which only covers the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha from June 27 – July 1, will be enough time to reach substantial agreements with the Druze community.

Salim Brake of the Open University of Israel told Al-Monitor, “These latest protests showcase two issues that are strongly intertwined. We have the issue of the turbines, and fears of the local residents for their health and for their rural way of life, but there is also the issue of land ownership and lack of trust in the Israeli authorities.”

Brake explained that the Druze community has been unable to improve village infrastructure or add more housing because of a lack of government approval.

“The government constantly piles up obstacles, preventing any upgrading or updating of urban master plans for the Druze villages. Young Druze men who come back to their villages after loyally serving in the IDF cannot build homes,” Brake said.

He explained that the Druze population growth over the years has not been met with an increased number of building permits.

“When Israel was established, the Druze population counted 14,500 people. It is now 10 times bigger, yet not a single new Druze village has been established.”

Given Israel’s already significant security concerns, an escalation in tensions with the Druze community would not be prudent. However, Druze leaders – even in the Galilee and the Carmel region – are threatening to escalate the situation if their demands are not met.

Daliyat al-Karmel Council head Rafik Halbi warned that the situation has the potential to become an intifada.

“A sort of intifada is about to develop among the Druze people in Israel because of planning laws, fines, and destruction orders,” he said. “Rage is building up, and a difficult transition is on its way. The country just disparages us.”

Even Tarif, who has condemned violence in the past, warned that Druze would take action if their demands were not met.

“We don't take instructions from anyone, not even Ben Gvir,” Tarif said, referring to Israel’s national security minister, who instructed the police to ensure construction on the turbines continues. “Any attempt to undermine the Druze connection to the land will receive an immediate response from the community.”

Tarif said that the Druze would use all means of legal protest.

“If our demands are not met, the Druze community will have a position it has never had before. All this is under the auspices of the law that allows us to demonstrate, of course, far from the violence that our religion condemns, but every attack on a cleric in the Golan Heights is an attack on the honor of the Druze community.”

Energix, the company behind the wind turbine project, claims it will improve infrastructure in the area, in addition to the millions of shekels in payments to the landowners, and a 15 million shekel (approximately $4.13 million) “betterment levy” paid to local Druze authorities.

At the same time, Energix has threatened to sue the Israeli government if construction does not continue.

Druze leaders are demanding that the state does not just increase funding, however, but that it halt the construction of turbines in the Golan on Druze lands and approve an expansion of Druze villages in the Galilee and Carmel regions.

The chairperson of the Subcommittee on the Development of Druze and Circassian Settlements complained that funding alone was insufficient for their community needs. In addition, he stated that the government had promised to increase funding to Druze and another minority community – the Circassians – in the past, and even vowed to permit the construction of new housing as recently as 2022, but the situation has not changed.

Adding to the security concerns, on Friday, a group of Druze soldiers at one military base protested by waving Druze flags and threatening to leave the base, stating that they feel insulted by the treatment of their community that they claim ignores the years of Druze service and sacrifice for the State of Israel.

The week prior, Druze Knesset Member Amal Nasser al-Din publicly asked Israeli Security Chief Ronen Bar to help the Druze community.

During a speech at an event where he received the Israel Prize, al-Din told Bar, “We love the country but it has problems. The Druze cart is in the mud, and we need someone to get it out of there, and you have a listening ear with the prime minister.”

Following the protests last Wednesday, Netanyahu and Bar met with Druze leaders before announcing a pause in the construction.

Israel has clearly been facing a difficult security situation, even before the eruption of the Druze protests.

It is difficult to see how Netanyahu will manage to appease the Druze community without causing friction within his coalition. After years of mostly-empty vows, the Druze community is not likely to be appeased by more promises. They will more than likely demand substantial results.

If Israel values its security, the coalition may have to agree to those demands, even if it does not want to.

J. Micah Hancock is a current Master’s student at the Hebrew University, pursuing a degree in Jewish History. Previously, he studied Biblical studies and journalism in his B.A. in the United States. He joined All Israel News as a reporter in 2022, and currently lives near Jerusalem with his wife and children.

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