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Nationality Law leads some Druze to re-evaluate identity

While Druze soldiers and generals in the Israel Defense Forces have taken the lead in protesting against the discriminatory aspects of the law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, many Israeli Druze are saying the controversial legislation came as no surprise.

DALIYAT AL-KARMEL, Israel — The sign in Hebrew hanging on the front door of the military cemetery at the top of Mount Karmel reads, “Tribute to the fallen Druze soldiers / We did not honor you as we should have.”

Ameer, a Druze man with protruding muscles, looked at it with a sad smile. “It's a Jewish neighbor who wrote that,” he told Al-Monitor. “It's nice.” An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veteran, Ameer had served during the first intifada. 

Druze cemeteries are traditionally devoid of grave markers bearing names because the Druze believe in reincarnation. An exception was made on Mount Karmel for those who had fallen in war, with more than 400 names of Druze soldiers so far engraved on stone slabs. The first date back to 1938, a decade before the founding of the State of Israel. Today, about 83% of Druze youth serve in the IDF, the highest enlistment percentage of all communities, including the Jewish population.

“We gave our lives and so much more,” Ameer said, pacing along the cemetery's pathways under a scorching hot sun. “And now the government wants to make us second-class citizens. Why?”

Since July 19 — when the Knesset adopted the controversial Nationality Law defining Israel as the nation-state and national home of the Jewish people — a rebellion has been brewing within the Druze community. Historically “faithful” to Israel, including to the IDF, the Druze feel discriminated against because of the new law.

It is because Druze soldiers and officers gave their lives for the nation that so many Druze — an Arabic-speaking ethno-religious minority numbering approximately 130,000 in Israel – feel betrayed. The text of the law, in the making since 2012, proclaims that only Jews have the right of self-determination in Israel, and it downgrades Arabic from an official language.

The law's passage has prompted widespread criticism among the country's minorities, the opposition and the diaspora. For these who oppose it, the problem is not so much what it states — many recognize the right of Israeli Jews, the majority, to define the country as their nation-state — but rather what it fails to proclaim: the equality of all Israeli citizens.

On Aug. 4, tens of thousands of Israeli Druze and their supporters gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square for a mass demonstration against the law, which the Druze see as a blow to their strategic alliance with Israeli Jews, often referred to as a “covenant of blood.”

“All we want is to be equal citizens,” Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal As'ad told Al-Monitor. “Jews, Druze, Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, … we are all Israelis. We need to change this bad law.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed aside the possibility of amending the law, but to ease tensions, he instead proposed new legislation offering benefits to members of minority groups who serve in the armed forces, as well as support for Druze religious, educational and cultural institutions.

Such a proposal would satisfy Amal Nasereldeen, a former Likud Knesset member who chairs a memorial outfit honoring members of the Druze community who died while serving.

“It's their right to have a Jewish state, but we're asking for a law that protects the Druze in particular, because we have supported them since the beginning,” Nasereldeen told Al-Monitor. He lost a son in the war of attrition with Egypt in 1969 and a grandson during the 2008 war in Gaza.

The Nasereldeen family is indeed one willing to pay the price of blood for the state. Amal Nasereldeen's youngest son Lutfi, in his late twenties, remarked, “If necessary, an Israeli Druze will fight against a Lebanese Druze.”

Critics fear, however, that special provisions for the Druze will codify a societal hierarchy of the population based on ethno-religious grounds, with Israeli Jews topping the list, followed by minorities considered to be “loyal” and then by others, such as Israeli Arabs.

“It would be a caste system, like in India!”, objected a City Hall official in Daliyat al-Karmel, one of Israel's main Druze strongholds.

Residents of the northern town have complained for years about negligence and discrimination. Seventy percent of the homes were built without a permit, because they were never issued, and 500 houses are not even connected to the electricity grid, according to City Hall. “Check what the Jewish towns in the area look like, and look what ours look like,” one resident said with a sigh.

A sense of marginalization has been fueling a dull anger for some time. “This law is not a surprise,” Maisan Hamdan, a secular Druze, told al-Monitor. “What it says, we've been living it for years. In my village, 200 houses do not have electricity.”

Whereas the vast majority of Hamdan's community rejects the new law but swears allegiance to the state, Hamdan rejects the state altogether. Where other Druze speak of loyalty, she speaks of “enslavement.” Hamdan, who holds an Israeli passport, considers herself Palestinian. She also campaigns against compulsory military service for Druze men.

“They live in a dream,” Hamdan said. “Israel wants them to believe that this the only place in the Middle East that can protect them, but it's not true. The Druze were raised on the view that equality is a favor that is earned in exchange for their service. But in what kind of democracy do we see that?” 

Rafat Harb is a Druze refusenik. He was jailed for three weeks after he failed to report for military service. He then went to a hospital, where he falsely claimed to have suicidal thoughts. He was ultimately declared unfit for military service.

Refusing to join the IDF had been an affront to Harb's community, especially to his own family. His five older brothers, his “heroes” he called them, had all joined the army.

Today, Harb is not alone in questioning the Druze' “blind support” of the Jewish state. “Before, we would hang the Israeli flag on our roof,” he said. “Not anymore. I am proud to say that I managed to change my family's mind about the military. I do not think my brothers will make their sons serve in the IDF.”

In a sign of the times, Harb smiled and said, “Now the debate within my family is whether we are Israelis or Palestinians. My grandmother and I see ourselves as Palestinians.”