Why more and more Israeli Druze prefer prison to military service

In the past few years, more Israeli Druze have been refusing to join the Israeli army as part of the compulsory military service, because they now feel more in touch with their Arab and Palestinian roots.

al-monitor A member of the Druze community holds a Druze flag as he speaks to an Israeli soldier near the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near Majdal Shams June 18, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.
Aziza Nofal

Aziza Nofal


Topics covered

youth, prison, palestinians, military service, israeli druze, israeli arabs, idf, druze

May 10, 2016

RAMALLAH, West Bank — When Druze Mostafa Zahr ad-Din Saad turned 18, he received a notice for military service in the Israeli army. He refused to serve just like his brother had done a year and a half before and their father many years ago. On April 17, Saad posted on his Facebook page a picture of the letter that he had received informing him that he was exempted from the military service.

He wrote, "Dear extended family and friends, a year ago I promised that I will never replace my violin with a firearm. Today I want to inform you that I was exempted from military service in the Israeli army, which is imposed on Arab Druze." The exemption came after Saad had refused to join the military; to avoid a prison term he had claimed that he was mentally unfit for the military service.

He continued, "Thanks to the only democratic state in the Middle East, I got a certificate saying that I am crazy [and not fit for military service]."

Saad is among the Druze who recently refused to enlist in the Israeli army based on nationalistic and patriotic principles. In the past few years, the number of young Druze refusing to join the army has been increasing. In the past, these cases were not made public, but Saad's brother Omar publicly announced his refusal to serve in the Israeli army in December 2014.

The Druze are the only Israeli Arabs who serve in the Israeli army. It all started in July 1954 when then-Minister of Defense Pinhas Lavon decided to impose conscription on all young Arabs under the Israeli Defense Service Law. Yet in 1956 this law was amended and conscription was limited to young Druze, under an agreement with the Druze leadership at the time. The law stipulates that every Druze over the age of 18 should serve in the Israeli army for two years.

The Saad brothers' refusal was inspired by their father, who had also refused to serve in the army in the past. Mostafa Saad told Al-Monitor that his refusal and that of his brother are based on principles and convictions they were brought up with, as an Arab Palestinian family. "We refused to serve as individuals, and we were never part of a group or anything. But [our refusal] was a contribution to a public cause and encouraged dozens of young people to do the same," he said.

Omar Saad told Al-Monitor that the main reason for his refusal is his belonging to the Arab Palestinian people and the Palestine Youth Orchestra at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. "I could never imagine myself wearing a military uniform for an entity that occupies, kills and humiliates the Palestinian people. I could never imagine myself standing at a checkpoint on the entrance of Palestinian villages and towns and participating in the oppression of my brothers and sisters, with whom I live, laugh, eat and play music," he said.

Omar Saad, whose case turned into a public opinion discussion, also spoke about the price he had to pay for taking his decision. He explained how he was sent to jail seven times, a total of 200 days, during which he was moved between the prison and a hospital after being taken ill. "Of course it was not an easy experience, but the support I got from my family and the civil support I received from around the world helped me stay strong and finish what I had started," he said, speaking about the support he got from a campaign launched to support him.

Druze youths have been launching campaigns refusing to serve in the Israeli army since 2014. One of the most influential campaigns, "Refuse and your people will protect you," was launched in June 2014, when Druze young people tore up military service notices in public and collectively refused to serve. Another campaign, "[Tasahal] Tolerate others, it is not worth it," was launched in May 2014. The word Tasahal refers to the Israel Defense Forces' name in Hebrew, meaning the Israeli army does not deserve the service of the youths.

The refusal of young people to serve in the Israeli army indicates that they seek obtain exemption from service. Upon their refusal, they are arrested and sent to prison for a period of time that may equal the full military service period; most of these young people have been locked up for such a time. Article 46(a) of Israel's Defense Service Law stipulates that anyone who does not serve his term under the law will be imprisoned for two years.

Samer Sweid, a member of the Druze Follow-up Committee, told Al-Monitor that this was not a new phenomenon and that the media and technological developments promote the national and patriotic feeling among young Druze, who have started to get to know other communities with which they share a language, history and culture.

According to Sweid, this phenomenon is perhaps spreading faster due to social networks; when a young man used to refuse to serve, only his family and friends would know about it. He said this is what happened in 1997 when he was sent to prison for seven months as punishment for his decision not to join the Israeli army.

"We now ask the young people's families to make their sons' refusal public in order to spread awareness, encourage other youths and show them that they have a choice even if they have to pay for it," Sweid said.

He believes young people's refusal to serve has helped change the stereotypical image of the Druze and that of the Druze soldiers in the army in the eyes of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; Druze have been considered to be the worst in dealing with Palestinians at checkpoints, courts and prisons. Sweid explained that Israeli army leaders have used the Druze to tarnish their image among Palestinians, saying, "I have been meeting with many Palestinians in the West Bank recently and they now look at the Druze differently. They accept us more and especially when they find out we refuse to serve in the Israeli army."

According to Sweid, 40% of young Druze are not serving, half of whom based their decision on national and patriotic reasons, and half of whom are exempted under the law, as they are female or religious men.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Adel Shedid, a professor of Israeli studies at Hebron University, agreed with Sweid that the issue of Druze refusing to serve in the army was nothing new, but that more people have recently started to refuse serving in the Israeli army and this has turned into a phenomenon that is now becoming public.

Shedid attributes the rising refusal rates of Druze young people mainly to the discrimination against Druze soldiers after they complete the military service, in terms of the privileges granted to them in particular and the discrimination against the Druze community in general. According to Shedid, the Druze are treated differently than Jewish Israelis when it comes to post-consription privileges such as housing benefits, loans, assistance in finding high-level jobs in state institutions and educational grants at universities.

He further noted other reasons behind this phenomenon such as the recent awareness campaigns among young Druze as a result of technological developments that have created a sense of patriotism after years of having been separated from other Palestinians inside the West Bank. In addition, the Druze began communicating with the Palestinian society after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), at both the popular and official levels.

"In the past, the Druze used to introduce themselves as Israeli Druze; however, today they introduce themselves as Arab Druze or Palestinian Druze. They no longer see the Palestinian struggle movement in a negative way and they no longer see themselves as part of the Zionist project," Shedid said.

Despite the rise of this phenomenon and its spread throughout the media, the reality shows that it would be difficult for it to turn into a comprehensive movement of refusal adopted by all young Druze — mainly because the Druze young people are forced to take the economic repercussions of such a decision into account. The Israeli army service provides job opportunities that could be difficult for young people to find on their own.

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