Druze Escape from Syria to Israel

By present accounts about 1.6 million people have fled from Syria to neighboring Arab countries to escape from the brutal civil and increasingly international war there. Now, unexpectedly, has come a startling request by leaders of the Druze community in the Golan Heights to the prime minister of Israel to allow fellow Druze in Syria to escape to Israel.

The relationship between Druze and the State of Israel is complicated. The Druze community in Israel, members of a sect active since the 11th century with a creed known only to insiders, is officially recognized as a separate and independent religious community. Knowledge of their beliefs is restricted though the principle that all Druze are linked with consequent ethnic, religious, and political connotations.

Arabic speaking, but not Arab nationalists, this community of about 125,000, living mostly in 22 villages in the Galilee, are Israeli citizens who are loyal to the State of Israel, serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and play a role in public service and in the political and social life of the country. Since 1962 they have their own courts to deal with matters of personal status for Druze. They learn Hebrew as well as Arabic in school.

That Druze role has included membership of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, with presently five representatives, diplomats, IDF commanders, judges, academics at Haifa University, and even a finalist in the Miss Israel beauty pageant. By chance, one Druze member of the Knesset, Majalli Wahabi, found himself briefly as the acting president of Israel because of President Mosche Katzsav's obliged leave of absence in 2007.

But the 20,000 Druze living in four main villages in the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 Six Day War and under Israeli sovereignty, administration, and jurisdiction since 1981, have a more complicated relationship with Israel than their coreligionists elsewhere in Israel. They were offered Israeli citizenship in 1981, but only about 10 percent accepted it at that time. Most refused since they regarded themselves as citizens of Syria, their traditional homeland, which had controlled the area since 1946. By 2010 only 700 had accepted Israeli citizenship. Some of the Druze feared reprisals against members of their families, part of the 800,000 Druze still living in Syria. Some fear difficulties for themselves if Syria ever returned to rule the reunified Golan area as President Assad has, in June 2013, threatened to do by opening a front against Israel. Some refused to cooperate with the "Zionist enemy," or thought they would be excluded from Druze community associations or events if they accepted citizenship.

Nevertheless, the Golan Druze are free to carry Israeli identity cards, even if not all do so, have received benefits from the State, and can live, work, and travel in any part of Israel or go to Israeli universities. Those from this group who have become Israeli citizens can vote and run for election to the Knesset.

The essential problem has been the uncertainty of the loyalty of the Golan Druze, whether to adhere to loyalty to their stated homeland Syria or accept the Israeli claim of sovereignty over the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan plateau. Those Druze are presently troubled by two issues: some of their families are divided with part of them being in Israel and part in Syria; and the differences among the Druze who take opposite positions about the war in Syria. Already the fighting caused by the rebel advance against the regime, before it was repulsed by Assad's force and the Hezbollah at the battle of Qusayr on June 5, 2013, caused the closing of the Quneitra crossing which was the link between the Druze in both countries, but which is now virtually closed except for international troops and humanitarian agencies.

In Syria, the Druze have been protected to some extent by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Most, though not all, have remained loyal to this regime headed by another minority group, the Alawites, often considered as heretics. Though some Druze have joined the opposition and others take a stance of neutrality in the war, an unknown number of them are prepared to defend the regime against the more religious rebels challenging it. They realize they have a problem if Assad is overthrown by those Sunni Muslim rebels, many of whom are increasingly Islamist in character.

The present issue arises from the fact that Druze students from the Golan Heights have gone to universities, mostly to study medicine, in Damascus, where they are taught in their own language, get free tuition, and have monthly allowances provided by Syria. After a few years of residence in Syria they are no longer regarded by the State of Israel as Israelis, and need special permission if they want to return to Golan. In June 2013, over 100 Druze leaders in Golan met and wrote a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking for Israel to admit 40 Druze students who had left Golan to study in Syria.

The reality has begun to dawn. More Druze in Golan are appreciating that Israeli citizenship is preferable to Syrian, and the number of those applying is increasing. No student in Golan is currently enrolled for the next academic year in Syria. No Druze Golan student in Syria wants to escape to any of the 22 Arab countries.
So far the Israeli government has not responded to the request of the Druze leaders to allow the students to be reunited with their families. Humanitarian reasons, as well as any benefits accruing from favorable public relations, suggest it should respond affirmatively. Edmund Burke was right. Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom.