The Israeli Druze in the shadow of terror and Syria war

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN in The Jerusalem Post

At the military cemetery in Beit Jann is a monument that rises out of a concrete hole in the ground. It has two pillars covered with marble, each nine meters high that appear like a triangle cut in half. These frame three dark slabs that contain a list of more than 50 of the villages fallen IDF soldiers in Arabic and Hebrew. The village has the distinction of having lost the highest number of men per capita of any locality in Israel’s wars.

This tragic distinction was hammered home last Thursday, as 38-year-old Border Police officer Jidan Assad was laid to rest. In a military ceremony attended by more than 1,000 people, he was eulogized by local residents and officials including Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Israel Police Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino. President Reuven Rivlin came to the village on Friday to pay condolences to the Assad family, noting the family and community “are an inseparable part of Israel.” As the ceremony concluded, the smell of gunpowder wafted through the air from the ceremonial three-volley salute fired by the honor guard at military funerals.

Druze religious men on the way to a funeral (Seth J. Frantzman)

Druze religious men on the way to a funeral (Seth J. Frantzman)

The crowd was a mix of local men of all ages, including representatives of nearby Christian and Muslim communities and many Jewish Israelis who came to pay their respects. After the salute, the body of Assad was borne out of the community center on the shoulders of men to a waiting truck. Women, who up until this moment had remained outside the community courtyard, filed silently past, accompanying the casket to the cemetery. Men, who hadn’t been talking or smoking for almost an hour of respectful silence and remorse, lit cigarettes and begin to make their way home.

For the approximately 12,000 residents of Beit Jann this is an all too-common event. Four members of the Assad family had recently died of various causes. There was a lot of tragedy on the shoulders of this community. After the funeral, local resident Hail Wahbe and three of his close friends and relatives gathered at the house of Farid Kazamil’s family. In a small ground floor room they are joined by Zeki Saad, an oud player who works in the Prisons Service and Teran Atila, an insurance adjuster. Dark coffee is made on a small burner and a narghile is passed around.

These four close friends have known each other since childhood and they are proud of their community’s role in the country’s history. They give an insight into the larger community’s feelings. Their grandfathers served in the IDF and they recall the fact that the Druse community famously chose to make a treaty with the nascent state of Israel during the 1948 War of Independence. On one wall is a small plaque with pictures of a relative who died in a terrorist attack.

But Wahbe describes a pragmatic choice forged by a long military tradition. “We served with the British also. We believe in our land, it isn’t necessarily about who is in charge. In Lebanon and Syria the Druse serve in the armed forces and defend their land.” But the men describe a trade-off that is fraught with difficulties. “The state gives us respect, but after leaving the army, the respect also leaves,” says Kazamil, who works as a security coordinator at a kibbutz.

Beit Jann is one of the highest communities in Israel, perched at 900 meters it rests on the slope of Mount Meron. To the south, near the entrance to the village, is one of the most spectacular views in the country. The residents are entirely Druse, some 98.6% by one recent estimate. Like other Druse communities, since May of 1956 the male residents have been conscripted into the army at age 18.
Five Knesset members have come from the village – Mohammed Nafa, Said Nafa, Assad Assad, Shafik Assad, and Majalli Wahabi – and have served in a variety of different parties and leadership roles.

FRIENDS GATHER after Jidan Assad’s funeral in Beit Jann. From left: Farid Kazamil, Zeki Saad and Hail Wahbe. (Seth J. Frantzman)

FRIENDS GATHER after Jidan Assad’s funeral in Beit Jann. From left: Farid Kazamil, Zeki Saad and Hail Wahbe. (Seth J. Frantzman)

For these young men in their early to mid-twenties, three of them unmarried, the political participation has not always translated into economic success at home. They describe an incredibly closeknit community where everyone knows one another and people marry within the community. But even as they describe their village as one of the most beautiful in the country in an idyllic environment, they stress the problems they face. “If I want to build a home, we have no room,” says Kazamil. Atila and Saad agreed. The feeling was that they perform more service than many Jewish communities, having among the highest enlistment rate of any group (83% of men go to the army, whereas in the Jewish population the rate is 75%).

“We want to receive what others get,” explains Saad. They explain that for young men like them, they have no room to build homes and expand the village. “There are 2,000 men who cannot build a house,” says Wahbe. “We are a small community, people end up building homes without a permit.” The struggle for land around Beit Jann has been a constant theme since the 1950s when land laws resulted in 3,250 acres of land traditionally run by the community being taken away from the village.

According to Kais Firro who wrote a book on the country’s Druse, in 1987 there were confrontations between residents and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. It is still a sour point for locals who think that the state should be providing easier and more flexible access to land for growth. Earlier this year Beit Jann received the distinction of having one of the highest high school matriculation rates in the country, with 85% passing the exam. At the comprehensive school, principal Ali Salalha was widely praised for the sort of miracle of taking passing grades from a low of 12% in 2000 to the highest of today, which places the school in the very top tier with Jewish locales like Kochav Yair. This is a point of pride for Wahbe and his friends.

“We go to the army, we go to university,” he says. Even though Druse women are not conscripted, they estimate that 30 percent of their female relatives did National Service and 80% received a first degree. Like many of the local women, Wahbe’s mother, Hanan, is very proud of her son’s army service. At Assad’s funeral earlier in the day, Druse religious men had played a prominent role. Men in dark blue robes with mustaches are a common sight. The Druse religion is secret, but for these young men participation in it is not really a choice. “We aren’t like in Islam, Judaism, or Christianity, where you can go to church or mosque and not be fully religious. With us, you either commit all the way or not,” says Wahbe.

Another issue on the resident’s mind is the threats facing Druse communities in Syria and Lebanon. They describe Mount Meron as the eyes of the State of Israel, a strategic summit which protects the community by looking out on neighboring states. Everyone is cognizant of the threats Druse face in As-Suwayda, the Druse city in southern Syria. Battles with Syrian rebel factions in February at the foot of the Jabal al-Druse, the highlands in south Syria where Druse communities are a majority, briefly threatened the area. The community has stood with the Bashar Assad regime, knowing that groups like the Nusra front and Islamic State consider the Druse infidels. The young men stress that, although they can’t cross into Syria, they pay close attention to what is happening and people have sent financial aid to the Syrian Druse community.

As if to hammer home that point, on Thursday fighting in Beit Tima, an area also populated by Druse on the slopes of Mount Hermon southeast of Damascus, led to the deaths of 26 members of Syria’s National Defense Forces and 14 Nusra fighters. This set off alarm bells among Lebanese Druse. Lebanese Druse political leaders Walid Jumblatt, Talal Arslan, and Wiam Wahhab all warned that involvement in the Syrian civil war was threatening their community there. Although they didn’t agree on what was the best course of action, with Jumblatt saying he had “warned of dangers of involvement with the regime,” they recognized the danger that “terrorists,” meaning Nusra, posed.

Threats to Druse in Lebanon and Syria are not as immediate as threats at home to friends and colleagues who serve in the army and various defense-related jobs. “It will get worse,” says Saad about the current tensions in Jerusalem. The young men think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to build over the Green Line. “Will he give up Jerusalem,” Kazamil asks rhetorically, “of course not.” There is a feeling of “if we do not protect ourselves, who will protect us?” But the men point out that their service is still a forced one. Would they choose to serve if it wasn’t compulsory? “Yes, probably. If I want to get a job, I need army service as a prerequisite, even to get a driver’s license it helps,” says Saad. “We go to the army because it paves the way for our future,” says Kazamil. “What is good about the service is it makes us strong. A lot of us become officers. We have the highest rate of becoming officers [of any group] in the IDF,” says Saad.

They discount various ideas for improvement that were floated over the years, like increasing army pay. “They can’t pay more. Look at the state budget. The money we receive [in compulsory service] is very little, but we do it for the country,” says Kazamil. “We give our lives for this country, but we are doing it for our lands here. We would die for it.”

Border Police officer killed in Jerusalem terror attack laid to rest

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

“For twelve years I served in Jerusalem with Jidan Assad: He was a son of a proud family that has served this country, he was a combat soldier who defended Israel,” Border Police head Asst.-Ch. Amos Yaakov intoned. “He was an excellent officer and it was an honor to work with him.” More than a thousand people attended the funeral in Beit Jann on Thursday of Supt. Jidan Assad, the 38-year-old officer who was killed in Wednesday’s driving terrorist attack in the capital that wounded 13 other people.

Assad was eulogized by Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel Police Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino, and others who knew and worked with him. Hundreds of Druse religious figures, dressed in their traditional dark robes and wearing white cylindrical hats, attended the ceremony, as well as representatives of local religious communities, including a Greek Orthodox priest and a Catholic priest. After a military-style guard of honor saluted Assad, his casket was borne out on a police vehicle to the village cemetery.

The funeral

The funeral

The large sprawling village of Beit Jann, perched on the slopes of Mount Meron in the Galilee, has the unwelcome distinction of having the highest rate of casualties per capita in Israel, having sacrificed more than 50 soldiers since the founding of the state.

Funerals are attended by almost everyone in the village, which Beit Jann resident Hail Wahbi described as a tradition built on the close-knit community. “We live close together and we care for each other,” Wahbi said. Youth perched on rooftops as the multi-colored Druse flags draped across the streets fluttered in the breeze.

The funeral was standing-room only as the crowds spilled out onto the streets around the community center’s courtyard. Women with loose, white head scarves draped over their hair stood in a long line stretching down the street. Many soldiers, some from the village, and others, including many Jews, came to pay their respects. After a brief prayer from the Druse religious leaders, a half-dozen speeches commemorated Assad’s life.

Jerusalem commander Yaakov recalled that Assad was an energetic and devoted colleague. “You were the first to help others and the last to leave, we will carry forward the legacy you left us. You leave behind a child, but your family will always have the Border Police as a family. I will not forget you,” he said.

Assad joined 481 other Border policemen who have fallen in the line of duty, “protecting our home and the nation of Israel,” he said. Danino noted the tremendous service Druse have performed for the State of Israel. “The terrorist groups will continue to try to hurt us, but Jerusalem is our city,” he said, adding that Border Police officers perform a difficult task, “standing at the checkpoints and manning the fences.”

In his speech, Aharonovitch stressed that Israel had been fighting terrorism for 66 years and that the country would continue to seek peace and quiet. “I’ve come to this village many times and we greatly value the Druse community’s service,” he said. Assad came from one of the leading families in the village. After completing his high-school education there, he served as a lieutenant in the army, and then joined the Border Police.

When the service was over and the honor guard had laid wreaths next to the casket, the villagers returned to their homes. The women, who remained behind the men during the service, followed the vehicle with the casket as it made its way toward the cemetery. Sawah Hamud, who served in the army for 12 years before taking work as a head of a local department of the Interior Ministry, described the Assads as one of the most respected families in the community. Two members of the family have been members of the Knesset, and he said many of the men have been officers in the army and the security services. “Jidan was a quiet man, he helped everyone in the village and volunteered often for local causes. It is very hard on everyone here,” he said. Assad leaves behind a pregnant widow and a two-year-old son.

One response to “The Israeli Druze in the shadow of terror and Syria war

  1. Pingback: The End of Syria | Seth J. Frantzman·

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