Appease the Druse

They need not prove their loyalty. They need to be rewarded for it.

pekiin riot 224 (photo credit: AP)
pekiin riot 224
(photo credit: AP)
A burst of sudden and unexpected violence has shattered the illusion that Druse and Jews are friends - come what may. Overblown slogans about a Druse-Jewish "blood bond" about being "comrades-in-arms" have been exposed overnight as so much hot air. What a discrepancy between the image of a picturesque and tranquil Peki'in village in the Upper Galilee, and the sights and sounds of firearms, smashed doors and windows and agitated villagers. A dispute among neighbors over the erection of a cellular telephone antenna was transformed into one of the worst clashes ever between the Israeli establishment and the Druse community. The owner of a chicken coop in in the neighboring Jewish village of Peki'in (New Peki'in) refused to heed a Druse demand to remove the antenna. Angry Druse youth repeatedly removed it by force. Police then raided the village in large numbers to arrest those responsible only to be surprised by young militant Druse who attacked the police and their vehicles and even briefly kidnapped a policewoman. What followed was the all-too-familiar exchange of allegations over who was to blame, the intifada-style rioters or the quarrelsome policemen. But the real question is not who is telling the truth. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: The Druse protest was violent and out of hand; the Yassam riot police unit (notorious for their roughness) might have been too trigger-happy. Since this is yet another case of conflicting narratives, an independent inquiry into the affair is likely to burden each party with a share of responsibility. Thus, what needs to be investigated is not only exactly what happened in Peki'in, but what generated all that anger, and what needs to be done to appease the Druse. Yes, appeasement is the key word. Not in order to buy temporary peace, but rather to reinforce their strong Israeli identity. AS A journalist, I have had close contacts with the Druse community in Israel for the past 30 years. The vast majority of them are loyal and proud Israelis, primarily because one of the key elements of the Druse way of life - throughout the Middle East - is absolute loyalty to the countries they live in - be it Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Israel. The Druse in Israel are better off than most of their brethren in the region, and their Israeli consciousness is sometimes stronger than that of many Jews. Their children do not dream of acquiring a European passport, neither do they seek nirvana in Goa, nor do they dream of a mansion in Beverly Hills. But even stronger than their Israeli identity is their Druse identity. The loyalty to the tribe usually overrides the loyalty to the state. Thus, when Israeli forces clashed with the Druse in the Golan in 1981 over the attempt to force them to accept Israeli identity cards, or when in 1982-3 the Druse community in Israel felt that their brethren in Lebanon were threatened by Israel's Christian allies there, it did not hesitate to rally behind their brothers - not their state. The same rule applies to Peki'in. Most residents of Peki'in did not take to the streets - after the initial violence - because they wanted to support a bunch of hooligans. Their protest was against what seemed to them like a military raid on a rampart. So the protest was in the first place an act of internal communal solidarity, a signal to the authorities that the community had better not be forced to choose between the state and the collective. The Druse need not prove their loyalty. They have passed the ultimate loyalty test with flying colors. Exact figures on Druse conscription rates into the IDF are not available, but it is clear that the vast majority of Druse 18-year-olds (some suggest as high as 86 percent) do compulsory service, while some 30 percent of Jewish youth are draft dodgers. THINK OF the protest in Peki'in as the tip of the iceberg, an expression of a much deeper frustration - that their Israeli identity is not rewarded, that young and educated Druse do not receive equal job opportunities in the civil service (except for the army), that Druse villages suffocate for lack of land, that not enough has been done to develop industrial zones in Druse villages and that far too little has been done to make them feel good - real good - about being Israelis. Sure, hooligans should be punished. Even our Druse friends are not above the law. But, in their case, you need more than the standard riot-police approach in dealing with a conflict over a cellular phone antenna. The local police commanders should have known better than to treat the Druse merely as individuals. When you force your way into a Druse home, it is not just the family that you confront - it is the entire tribe. The police should have learned by now that you can achieve more by talking to community leaders than by clashing with the mob. The police officers who acted in Peki'in (just like those who seven years ago acted in Umm al-Fahem, Sakhnin and Arabbe) must have missed their community relations classes at the police academy. The Orr Report on the October 2000 riots suggested that some policemen were infected with racism against Arabs. The Druse, too, are Arabs. Are we dealing with the same virus? My own recommendation is that hooligans should be punished, but the community at-large should be appeased. Now is as good a time as any to turn over a new leaf in relations between the state and its Druse citizens. Ministers should apologize for harm done and for people hurt, budgets should be made available, industrial zones developed, more employment and housing opportunities should be created. The IDF has embraced the Druse for years, opening up all units to their participation. It is time that the rest of the country does the same. The Druse should be appeased because they are the weaker part of the equation, because the state is strong enough to adopt the maxim of Hillel the Sage: "Do onto others as you would have others do onto you." They should be appeased, because Israel needs a content Druse community - if only to prove to the rest of the Arab minority that it pays to be a proud Israeli. But foremost, they ought to be appeased because they are true and loyal friends. Israel does not have too many of those to spare, and Druse friendship should not be taken for granted. The writer worked for 30 years as the Arab Affairs correspondent for Channel 1 and as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's Jerusalem bureau chief. He is co-author with Dr. Ruth Westheimer of The Olive and the Tree, the Secret Strength of the Druze (Lantern Books)