Growing numbers of Druze refuse to serve in Israel’s army

20 March 2013

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Samer al-Sakleh is a Palestinian Druze who has refused to serve in the Israeli army. (Photo courtesy of Samer al-Sakleh)

The number of refuseniks is growing within the Druze religious minority in Israel, according to Samer al-Sakleh, a 20-year-old who has refused to serve in the Israeli army.

“Around 70 percent of the Druze men in my village go to the army,” said al-Sakleh, who hails from Meghar, a village in the Galilee. Yet he is hoping that his protest and that of other Druze will encourage more young people to become conscientious objectors.

Meghar is also home to Omar Saad, a Druze musician who received international attention last year for his decision not to undertake military service.

Like Saad, al-Sakleh grew up in a household that rejected the notion of unshakeable Druze loyalty to a state that systematically discriminates against Palestinians. “I come from a communist family. My father studied in the Soviet Union, and we were raised in a leftist environment that rejects militarism like Israel’s,” al-Sakleh told The Electronic Intifada. His father spent four months in an Israeli jail for refusing to serve in the army.

“I consider myself Palestinian. I am Palestinian, of course, and I am part of Palestinian culture, society and civilization, and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip are part of my people. I will not serve in a military that continuously kills them.”

“We identify as Palestinians”

Unlike many young Druze conscientious objectors, al-Sakleh was not imprisoned. Rather, he purposely failed a mandatory recruitment test and the state afforded him an exemption on the assumption that he was mentally unfit for military service. “I pretended that I was crazy, in other words, but I did it for moral and political reasons,” he explained.

Mandatory military service for Druze men is the result of a 1956 agreement in which the community’s leaders sought to improve conditions for the tiny minority and the Israeli government sought to control Palestinians by manufacturing strife within different sections of the Palestinian minority in present-day Israel. There have always been objectors, however, who have seen it as a one-sided deal that costs more than it pays.

“For the most part, we face all the same economic and political barriers as the rest of the Palestinian minority in Israel,” al-Sakleh said. “We are mostly poor, and our villages, often shared with Christian and Muslim Palestinians, lack sufficient infrastructure” as a result of the government’s unwillingness to invest in non-Jewish areas.

The state has subjected Druze refuseniks to harsh punishment. Nonetheless, “a growing number of us understand that we identify as Palestinians — more than five or ten years ago, for sure,” said al-Sakleh.

This perception is shared by Samer Swaid from the Druze Initiative Committee. Established in 1978, that committee became “a home for youngsters who regretted the historical pact made with the Jewish state and in particular the obligation to join the compulsory service in the military,” the historian Ilan Pappe wrote in his book The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel (165).

Jail sentences

Swaid referred to a 2010 study conducted by Haifa University, which found that more than two-thirds of the Druze minority would not serve in the military if it wasn’t compulsory. “Druze refusers have been given prison terms double and more than those of other refusers,” he said.

Despite the marked increase in abstainers, many choose not to define themselves as refuseniks or to publicize their case, fearing repercussions.

“At any given moment, there are between three and five Druze refusers in prison … the vast majority [of Druze who do not serve] do not want to define themselves as refusers and don’t want to be part of public campaigns,” Swaid said. “This is due to the fact that they are a minority group, and most people think it will hurt their family and they’ll be targeted by the establishment and punished. Right now we know of at least four guys in prison.”

In Buqeia, a northern Galilee village with a 70 percent Druze majority, “the young men … spent a total of 540 years in military prison over the years,” said Swaid.

In June 2012, Omro Nafa (son of a Druze former member of Israel’s parliament Said Nafa) was imprisoned for a third time for not serving in the military (“For the third time, son of Arab MK imprisoned for refusing military service,” International Middle East Media Center, 14 June 2012).

A recent poll conducted by Mada al-Carmel Arab Center for Applied Social Research found that 71.5 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel between 16 and 22 years of age reject national service “because it is a way to legitimize discrimination and inequality,” (“71.5 % of young Israeli Arabs oppose national service,” Haaretz, 12 February).

Few opportunities

Sahar Vardi from New Profile, an Israeli group opposed to militarization, said that the Druze and other Palestinians in Israel face “discrimination in all aspects of life: housing, budgets, land confiscations, and so on. That’s why less of the youth join the army now, and those who do simply do it as a career opportunity because there is nothing like employment equality outside [the army].”

In recent years, more organizations have sprung up to support conscientious objectors. Baladna, an organization that works on behalf of the Palestinian minority in Israel, has formed a Druze youth wing that works on military service as well as other issues.

February’s Knesset elections in Israel preserved a belligerent administration led by Benjamin Netanyahu, now backed by an even greater number of zealous politicians who regularly spout racist rhetoric and promote policies of forced population control to preserve a Jewish majority. In this political climate, more and more Druze Palestinians will question their role in a state that cynically considers them partial citizens at best.

As al-Sakleh said, “I am against the idea of an ethnic or religious state that comes at the expense of others — whether it be exclusively Jewish, Christian, Islamic or Druze.”

Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance journalist whose writing has been published by Al-Akhbar English, SocialistWorker.org, Fair Observer, Palestine Monitor, CounterPunch and elsewhere. He is the former Israel-Palestine editor of BikyaNews.com. Find him on Twitter: @_pstrickland_.