Campaign gives new choices to Druze youth facing Israeli conscription

Maisan Hamdan is a founder member of the anti-military service group Refuse — Your People Will Protect You. (Photo courtesy of Maisan Hamdan)

“From the earliest days of mandatory conscription for Druze, there has been opposition,” says anti-militarization activist Maisan Hamdan. That opposition has become more public and gained more visibility in recent years.

Eighteen-year-old Anan Shaheen, from the Druze religious community in Shefa Amr, a Palestinian city in the Galilee region of present-day Israel, recently declared his refusal to serve in Israel’s military. Yet when he arrived at the local military registration offices in Haifa, he was surprised by the news that he was being given an exemption from military service.

Shaheen is part of a growing movement of Druze Palestinians who refuse to serve in Israel’s army, which for decades has occupied Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese lands in violation of international law. Though most Druze males are required to complete three years of military service, more and more are choosing imprisonment over serving in Israel’s occupation.

Because the majority of the Druze males continue to serve in Israel’s occupation military, conscientious objectors face problems within their own society as well as legal punishment. In the past, this led many young Druze men to intentionally fail a mental aptitude test in order to receive an exemption.

Recent years have seen a spike in public refusal, however, as well as growing movement against conscription. The campaigning group Refuse — Your People Will Protect You was founded in March 2013 to provide legal and moral support to Druze conscientious objectors.

Maisan Hamdan, 23, is a founding member of Refuse and a vocal Palestinian activist from Isifiya, a Palestinian town near Haifa. The Electronic Intifada interviewed her on 10 August, just a few hours after the news that Shaheen was exempted from military service.

Patrick O. Strickland: Maisan, thanks for meeting with The Electronic Intifada. We recently sat down with you to speak about Anan Shaheen’s conscientious objection. Could you start by explaining the significance of Shaheen’s refusal for the Refuse campaign and the broader movement against military conscription among Palestinians in Israel?

Maisan Hamdan: Firstly, Anan Shaheen from Shefa Amr was supposed to register for military service on 31 July, but it was postponed till today [10 August]. We showed up with him today at the military recruitment office in Haifa. Anan didn’t know if he would have to go to prison or get an exemption. We didn’t make a big fuss. We waited outside for him in the sun for several hours to support him. They kept calling him in, then sending him back outside to wait longer.

After a long time, he finally went in. After half an hour or so, he came outside with an exemption paper from the occupation authorities and the military institution. Anan is an example and inspiration for any Druze youth who wants to refuse obligatory military service.

He refused publicly, in the media, and in a very confident way. He said outright that there is no situation in which he’d be a part of this institution, and for that he faced a lot of opposition and resistance from people in his hometown. People kept telling him that he’d ruin his future; that he won’t be able to advance in life; that he’d go to prison; that he wouldn’t get an exemption [from Israeli military service]. But today Anan took an exemption and is waiting to begin his university studies.

This is also part of Refuse’s role. We will begin giving scholarships to conscientious objectors. Anan will be the first one to get a scholarship from Refuse and begin studying. I think that Anan is an example of someone approaching and believing in our campaign. And we believed that he would gain exemption from military service — and he did in the end. So, where is that lie now, the one that says conscientious objectors are going to ruin their lives and futures?

PS: For readers less familiar with Refuse’s beginnings, do you mind talking a bit about the group’s origins and stated purposes? What was Refuse’s first direct action?

MH: The name “Refuse” is new, but as a group of activists working on a campaign towards refusing military service since 2010. Many people have joined us and worked with us in that time. We have always tried to begin a specific group. In the beginning of 2013, we came in contact with a [Jordanian civil society] group called Ahel [Arabic for “family”] that works in [community] organizing. We told them we’d like to organize as an official group and they helped us. So in the beginning of 2013, we began to work on the establishment and structure of our campaign.

In March 2013, we launched the campaign officially with a solidarity protest outside Israel’s military prison Atlit for Druze conscientious objectors imprisoned at the time. After that, we started a few other initiatives, such as a support hotline for young males considering refusing military service … for financial and legal support.

Then we began an archive to record the names of conscientious objectors because it has rarely been documented in the past. [The names] of conscientious objectors have been hidden from the public. Now we are also starting the scholarship initiative that I mentioned before.

The beautiful thing about our demonstrations outside the occupation’s prisons is that our voices reach the prisoners inside. People inside the jail, who didn’t know about Refuse before, contacted us after being released. Some of them joined the movement and became very active members, such as Seif Abu Seif [a conscientious objector who served prison time]. He works very hard today.

Most importantly, we are working on supporting the conscientious objectors through their legal struggle and spreading awareness about the Druze in general. The Zionist establishment succeeded and continues to succeed in presenting Palestinian Druze as solely loyalists to Israel and its military. We want to change this image.

Israel uses Ghassan Alian [a Druze colonel in Israel’s occupation military] as an example. But Ghassan Alian doesn’t represent Druze; as a part of Israel’s military, he represents the Israeli military and nothing more. There are a lot of Arab soldiers from different religions and no one says that they represent their religious sects. They are not representatives of the Christians or the Muslims, for instance.

And we also don’t represent all Druze. We represent ourselves and our campaign. We want to show that there is more than one point of view among Druze. The Druze man is not just a soldier at the checkpoint or a war criminal. It’s possible and it happens. But there are also those among us who refuse military conscription and are proud of Palestinian Arab identity.

“A distinct movement”

PS: How has Refuse and the broader push against mandatory conscription been received among different parts of Palestinian society, in particular older generations of the Druze?

MH: This is what makes our movement distinct. As an institution, it is designed for youth. Yet there are supporters from the older generations, as well. Some of the older supporters were conscientious objectors in the past, while others served in the military and changed their minds. The campaign is not limited to any generation or sectarian group or religion in that sense. There are several female representatives taking part in our campaign against military conscription. There are also Christians and Muslims involved in the campaign.

Also, the campaign doesn’t belong to any specific political party. Our members have a wide range of political opinions, but we are united against military conscription. Geographically, we have supporters and involved campaigners from all over the ‘48 Palestinian territories [present-day Israel], the West Bank and Gaza. There are also supporters in other countries.

One of the aspects of the campaign that is very special is the involvement of several different demographics of Palestinian society, many of which don’t at present face the fear of conscription in the occupation’s military, such as women. Druze females aren’t required to serve in the military, but many are involved in this campaign because it’s part of the broader Palestinian cause.

From the earliest days of mandatory conscription for Druze, there has been opposition. Hence, our support from older generations.

PS: Can you expand a bit on the history of opposition to military service within Druze society?

MH: The Israeli narrative says that Druze were the ones who requested to serve in the military. According to research by the professor Qais Farro, that’s incorrect. Secondly, there is no documented evidence to prove that Druze sheikhs [religious leaders] signed any document to agree Druze males should be obligated serve in the military.

As far as I am concerned, that’s all a lie. The correct narrative is that obligatory military service was installed by force. It was imposed. Israel took advantage of the fact that most Druze relied on agricultural output for a living. Israel [after the 1948 Nakba] made access to land largely conditional on military service. Even though there was a lot of resistance, these resources were a major factor.

On the other hand, there was a lot of fear of the Israeli government. They were offered temptations — financial opportunities to study, building permits for homes, and the promise that their lands wouldn’t be confiscated as it was with many other Palestinians who stayed in Israel. How can we not expect impoverished people to react to this? People were also scared of going to prison, or not being able to make a living.

Women in struggle

PS: Do you mind explaining the significance of the large participation of female activists in Refuse and the movement against mandatory conscription?

MH: Firstly, regarding females, I think one of the Israeli policies is to only impose military service on male youth in order to strengthen traditional conservative parts of Arab society. It is part of the patriarchal idea that men should be the breadwinners while women remain in the home to raise the kids. In general, it is still apparent that this is the reality in Druze families today, though there are exceptions.

Strengthening conservative and sectarianian segments of Druze society only served Israel’s interest of dividing Palestinians. That includes Palestinians who live in the 1948 territories [present-day Israel]. Like Chrisitians and Muslims, Druze are no exception to policies that aim to create internal divisions, whether it be by fostering sexist concepts or anything else.

We in the campaign aim to show that women are also leaders. Although my female comrades and I don’t face obligatory military service, we want to be a part of the efforts. Just like military service isn’t obligatory for non-Druze, it’s not obligatory for us. It’s our cause nonetheless, and it is our duty to play a role against military conscription.

PS: There are activists in Refuse who served in the military before joining the movement. There has been very little media coverage of this aspect of the movement. Can you explain how this development came to be?

MH: Of course, this part strengthens the idea that the military and the government are in no way what they claim to be. There are members of the campaign who completed military service and realized that it didn’t pay off in the end. Israel reneged on its promises.

There are also a handful of members who didn’t complete their military service. They entered the military and saw the human rights violations, and then realized that they didn’t want to be a part of it. One of our members — who is legally forbidden from speaking publicly about his refusal — left after a year and a half of service in the military. He was imprisoned for refusing to continue his service and banned from speaking about it.

So, we accept people who served in the military because it was imposed on them. All Druze, like all Palestinians, are victims of Israel at the end of the day.

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor to The Electronic Intifada. His website is Follow him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_.