More than thirty years after its annexation of the Golan Heights, the civil war in Syria seems to have presented Israel with a chance to draw the Druze population of the Golan Heights closer to itself. The Druze of the Golan Heights have been under Israeli control since the area was occupied in 1967 but have never accepted their new rulers. Almost all have opposed Israel’s 1981 decision to annex the Golan Heights, and more than 90 percent have refused to accept Israeli citizenship. But as Syria fragments, this long-standing orientation toward the Syrian motherland is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.
While there are larger Druze communities in Israel proper, as well as in Lebanon and the rest of Syria, the Druze of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights number some 20,000 people. They live concentrated in four main villages: Majdal Shams, Masada, Buqata, and Ein Qiniyye.
Until 2011, the inhabitants of these villages were able to remain in touch with Syria to a limited extent, despite the official state of war between Israel and Syria. For example, the Golan Druze were allowed to export their yearly apple harvest to Syria for a price higher than the actual market price in Israel, and Druze students from the Golan were allowed to attend Syrian universities.
Feeling the War Next Door
Since the outbreak of the revolution in Syria in March 2011, it has become increasingly difficult for the Syrian Druze living in the Golan Heights to maintain these links to the motherland. The apple export was suspended in 2012 for security reasons, even though it resumed in 2013. Meanwhile, most students from the Golan Heights have returned home because of the war. It is not certain whether the students will be able to return to Syria in the near future or if the security situation will allow the apple export this year.
Every Golan Druze has family in Syria, on the other side of the ceasefire line. The precarious situation now faced by the Druze in Syria contributes to a general sense of uncertainty. For example, the Druze village of Hadar, on the Syrian side of the fence, is less than 5 miles away from the neighboring village of Majdal Shams in Israeli-occupied territory. Most Syrian Druze support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, and their villages generally remain under government control. Both Hadar and the village of Arna—some miles to the north—have seen heavy fighting with anti-Assad Islamists over the last year.
The civil war in Syria has divided the inhabitants of the four Druze villages in the Golan Heights between supporters and opponents of Assad. Given the length of the occupation, most Golan Druze have never personally experienced the Baath Party regime in Syria, and a full two generations have grown up under Israeli control. Some Golan Druze were therefore deeply shocked by the brutal repression of their own people by the regime. Yet, support for Assad remains strong within the community, and a few Golan Druze have even appeared beyond the fence, fighting on the regime’s side.
Signs of a Changing Attitude
These tensions have the potential to turn violent, and they threaten the collective solidarity on which the Golan Druze’s rejection of Israel is based. Most Golan Druze are well aware that a return of the Golan Heights to Syria is now more unlikely than ever. Some younger Golan Druze may also feel that returning to a country ruined by civil war, where sectarian tensions have grown into an existential threat for religious minorities, is no longer desirable.
There are now recurring reports of young Golan Druze applying for Israeli citizenship, breaking with the firm anti-Israel stand taken by the community over the past half century. However, most of these reports seem overstated, given that the phenomenon was limited to about 100 cases last year.
More significant is the fact that a meeting took place in Majdal Shams in late June 2013 between Druze dignitaries and Harel Locker, the director general of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. It was the first time in decades that an Israeli government representative was welcomed to Majdal Shams. Significantly, Sheikh Taher Abu Salah, who is the spiritual leader of the Golan Druze, also attended the meeting. The religious leadership has long been seen as a guarantor of the rejection of Israeli citizenship by threatening those who apply for it with social and religious banishment.
Israel Seizes the Opportunity
The Israeli government has recognized the current war as an opportunity to bind the Golan Druze closer to Israel and strip them away from Syria. So far, the Golan Druze villages have been extremely neglected by the Israeli government, and much of the existing infrastructure has been built through grassroots efforts by the community itself. Now, however, the Israeli government has declared that in the period up until 2017, it will invest some $59.8 million in the Golan Druze villages.
We’re not likely to see widespread acceptance of Israeli citizenship among the Golan Druze anytime soon. But even so, if the civil war continues and the situation for the minorities in Syria remains as poor as it is today, the Golan Druze will probably try to keep their Israeli option open. A cautious rapprochement by broader segments of the Golan Druze toward Israel is therefore likely in the longer-term perspective, and there are undeniably some strong signs that this dynamic has already begun.
Tobias Lang is a political analyst based in Vienna, Austria, and the author of Die Drusen in Libanon und Israel (“The Druze in Lebanon and Israel”). He operates the blog MENA Minorities and tweets under @tob_la.