Daniel Orenstein

Israel and the Druze of the Syrian Golan

Just last year the world looked on in horror while witnessing the fate of the Yazidis, a small religious sect, in Iraq at the hands of Islamic State (ISIL). Until the moment of their forced relocation and massacre of at least 5000, most of the world had not even heard of them.

Now Islamic fundamentalists are closing in on the Syrian Druze, who, to their misfortune (but consistent with their political disposition to exercise loyalty to the reigning regime in every country they live) were loyal to President Assad and thus considered an enemy of the Islamic rebels. Aside from their loyalty to Assad, they are also perceived as heretics, practicing a religion that split off from Islam 1000 years ago. As Assad’s power in Syria continues to diminish, the Syrian Druze are exposed and threatened, according to their co-coreligionists and family on the Israeli side of the border, with a fate not dissimilar to the Yazidis. If this is true, Israel should be ready to make a clear policy decision regarding the Syrian-Golan Druze.

It has been clearly expressed by Israel’s political and military leadership that it is not in our national interest to intervene in any way in the Syrian civil war. However, I suggest four arguments in favor, not of military intervention, but of assuring an open border for members of the Druze community to cross into the Israeli Golan, should they need refuge, and to consider their long-term resettlement.

  • The primary justification is humanitarian; without a safety net, the Druze may be consigned to a fate similar to that of religious minorities throughout the area now controlled by ISIL – massacre, torture and other severe human rights abuses and forced relocation. Israel, founded on the principle of providing a homeland to a dispersed and hunted nation, should be sensitive to their prospective future and respond accordingly.
  • Following the 1967 war, tens of thousands of Druze were forced out of the newly conquered Israeli Golan and their villages destroyed; Many Syrian Druze, thus, came from what is now the Israeli Golan. Repatriation of Druze and re-unification of families would be an a priori good-will measure in anticipation of a broader regional peace agreement, should that day come.
  • Israeli Druze have proven, more than any other minority group in Israel, their steadfast commitment to the state of Israel, not only serving in the IDF, but in civilian life as well. True, the Golan Druze were not as enthusiastic, and most have refused Israeli citizenship (although more and more have been requesting citizenship) and they have periodically held public demonstrations reiterating their loyalty to Syria. But in practice, these were little more than symbolic gestures interrupting an otherwise normal and peaceful state of affairs on the Golan. By accepting Syrian Druze in our midst we would be affirming the 70-year strong relationship between the Druze community and the State of Israel.
  • Minister of Education Naftali Bennett recently called for the world community to recognize Israel’s jurisdiction on the Golan and has called for mass [Jewish] immigration to settle the Golan. By adding a new population of Druze –natives to the Golan – to the population could buttress his call and stabilize the political standing of the Golan.

Between 1977 and 1979, Israel – under the leadership of Menachem Begin – took in 300 Vietnamese refugees (“Boat People”) as a symbolic act and humanitarian gesture. Begin drew the direct connection between the fate of the Vietnamese refugees and the fate of Jews fleeing Europe prior to the Holocaust, who were refused landing everywhere and thus returned to Europe and their fate. Israelis are proud of that act, and refer to it widely as testament to Israel’s moral standards. But 50 years of occupation of Palestinians and our inability to come to terms with the underside of our own independence and its impact on the Palestinians have severely degraded our ethical standing in our own eyes and in that of the world. Providing refuge for the Syrian Druze would be a good first step in re-recognizing our own collective, national humanity.

The numbers can be negotiated to balance our demographic and security concerns (and the willingness of other countries to provide sanctuary if needed) – but considering Minister Bennett’s enthusiasm for populating the Golan, re-settling 20,000 Syrian Druze there, effectively doubling the current population, is not beyond imagination. Days before an impending humanitarian catastrophe that will likely go unrecognized in most of the world, Israel can take a bold and meaningful decision to save human life.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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