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Druze on the Golan Increasingly Opt for Israeli Citizenship

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The Druze living on the Golan Heights, an area  captured by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981, are increasingly choosing to become Israeli citizens. About 5,000 of the 25,000 Druze on the Golan have now chosen to become Israelis. A report on this welcome development is here: “As ties to Syria fade, Golan Druze increasingly turning to Israel for citizenship,” Times of Israel, September 3, 2022:

In the four decades since Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights, the Druze residents of the volcanic plateau have zealously maintained their Syrian identities and ways of life. From signage that gives no quarter to Hebrew to farms that ship their produce across the border rather than down road, sharp-eyed visitors can see how the community has thoroughly rejected integration into Israel, instead maintaining strong commercial, social and academic ties to Damascus.

Neither the improved economic situation of the Druze population nor the concerted efforts of successive Israeli governments to cut those links have made any difference.

But all that is changing, thanks to the self-destruction of the Syrian state, and to the benign 41-year rule of Israel in the Golan. Younger Druze do not share the residual loyalty of their elders to Syria, nor their fear of Syrian retaliation should they become too friendly towards Israel.

There are several reasons why the older Druze on the Golan have continued to display their loyalty to the Syrian regime for so long. First, they worry that in some future settlement between Israel and Syria, that the area might be returned to Syria, and any Druze whom Damascus then perceived as having been insufficiently loyal while under Israeli rule would suffer a harsh punishment. Second, they have wanted to ensure that their Druze relatives inside Syria would remain safe, and that required the Golan Druze to keep their distance from Israel.

In recent years, however, a quiet shift has taken place. After years of near-blanket rejection of Israeli offers of citizenship, the number of Golan Druze applying to become Israeli citizens has begun to tick upwards.

It has been 41 years since Israel annexed the Golan. With each passing year, it has become ever clearer to the younger Druze on the Golan, who have known no other rule but that of Israel, that Israel is on the Golan to stay, and they need not fear that the territory will be returned to Syria. In December 2021, then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced a plan to double the number of Israelis living on the Golan from 25,000 to 50,000; that was another assurance to the Druze that Israel will not let go of the Golan. The Druze on the Golan are also well aware of how their fellow Druze in Israel have fared as loyal citizens of the Jewish state; Israeli Druze are subject to the same requirement to serve in the IDF as Israeli Jews and some have risen high in the ranks of the IDF, such as Major General Ghassan Alian, who served during the Second Lebanon War and has been a commander of the Golani Brigade.

Official government figures obtained through a freedom of information request submitted by Shomrim, via the Movement for Freedom of Information NGO, show that over the past five years, the number of citizenship requests filed by Druze residents of the Golan Heights has gradually jumped from 75 requests in 2017 to 239 in 2021.

The number for 2022 will likely be even higher still. In the first half of the year alone, 206 requests were submitted.

The reasons for the change are not entirely clear, but appear to be connected to the Syrian civil war, which made links with Damascus harder to maintain and altered attitudes toward the regime in Damascus. Generational shifts may also be at play, with many Golan Druze coming of age today bound to Syria only by stories.

The ruthlessness of the Syrian government displayed in the civil war has made a deep impression on the Druze in the Golan; they have been appalled at the regime’s cruelty. And they have seen how Israel has received them. And that war has disrupted, even made impossible, maintaining their ties to fellow Druze in Syria.

Shomrim contacted dozens of Druze residents of the Golan asking for an interview for the purposes of this article. Among those Druze with strong affiliations to Israel, including those involved in local government and people who are actively involved in helping obtain Israeli citizenship, there was practically across-the-board refusal to talk to Shomrim. The main concern was that they would be subjected to pressure from their community should they speak openly.

The pro-Israel Druze in the Golan have to be careful, worried that if they display too openly their loyalty to the Jewish state this will displease other Druze – those still worried about a possible return of the Golan to Syria — who might try to force them to keep quiet.

Those opposed to taking Israeli citizenship also refused to be interviewed about it, fearing that talking to the media could make them “targets” for Israeli authorities.

This is a baseless worry. The Israelis do not retaliate against those – Druze, Arabs, or Jews — who simply express an opinion, as long as it does not promote or justify terrorism.

One of the few people who agreed to talk to Shomrim was a woman in her early 20s who grew up in a family that had never sought Israeli citizenship. Mila, a pseudonym, described a community in which a new narrative has taken hold, one that questions the loyalty of the Syrian regime to the Druze community on the Golan Heights and the difficulty that young Druze have identifying with Syria, a country most have never even visited.

The Assad regime has shown itself during the civil war indifferent to the wellbeing of the Druze living in that part of the Golan that Syria still retains. It has done nothing to assure their safety, but instead shelled opposition forces in the Syrian-held parts of the Golan, attacks which imperiled the Druze living there as well.

“I have never felt any kind of affinity to Syria or to Israel,” she said.

I don’t believe this. She knows how the Druze have fared in Israel, and how the Druze on the Golan were treated when Syria held the entire area. She has been living under the benevolent rule of Israel, that has helped keep the Golan safe from Assad’s despotic rule, and allowed the Druze community to flourish.

Her decision to request citizenship, which she kept secret from her extended family, was motivated by convenience alone.

Unlike the Druze of northern Israel, who have largely accepted Israeli rule, the Druze living in the Golan Heights have continued to maintain close ties with Syria, even after Israel captured the territory in 1967 and effectively annexed it in 1981. Of the 21,000 Druze who live in four towns in the Israeli Golan, Interior Ministry figures show that some 4,300 are Israeli citizens, including some who inherited the status from parents who previously accepted citizenship.

The latest figures show that there are about 25,000 Druze in the Israeli Golan, and that close to 5,000 have asked for and been granted Israeli citizenship.

The Syrian regime has actively encouraged the preservation of tight links with the Golan Druze, supporting commercial ties and allowing Druze residents of the Golan to study for free in Syrian academic institutions, for instance. There have been family reunifications between Druze on either side of the border as well as marriages linking families that are today in two separate warring countries.

The Druze, for their part, have made sure to publicly display their loyalty to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime, holding regular demonstrations and protests against Israel’s control of the plateau.

These demonstrations are not heartfelt – Israel has been a singularly benevolent ruler – but simply constitute a form of insurance, just in case Bashar Assad should ever again regain possession of the Golan; these protests establish a record of anti-Israel activity that will stand those Druze in good stead.

In 1982, residents held a six-month general strike to protest Israel passing a law that extended its sovereignty to the Golan Heights. Protests have been held on the anniversary of the annexation decision annually, though the number of participants is usually limited to a few hundred….

A few hundred protesters out of a total population of 25,000 Druze in the Golan is hardly impressive. As the older generation of Druze, still fearful of future Syrian retaliation, dies out, they are replaced by young people who have only known the mild rule of Israel.

Yusri Hazran, a historian and senior lecturer at Shalem College in Jerusalem who has researched trends and changes in Druze society in the Golan Heights, predicted that within 20 years, some half of the Druze residents of the Golan Heights will hold Israeli citizenship.

According to Hazran, the Syrian civil war has “smashed the idea of a Syrian nation” and severed many links between the Golan Druze and Damascus, including cross-border sales of produce and university attendance….

The Druze have witnessed the civil war in Syria, a conflict still not entirely ended, that has resulted in the deaths of half a million civilians, with five million Syrians displaced from their homes and another six million having fled the country. It has been estimated that the country, which is now broke, will need $350-$450 billion to repair the damage to its infrastructure. More and more of the Golan Druze have had their ties to Druze inside Syria severed, unable to send produce for sale as they once did. The Syrians still have a program offering free university tuition to the Golan Druze, but Syria’s university system has been smashed – lecture halls, classrooms, laboratories and libraries destroyed, with many faculty members having fled the country, or been displaced by the fighting, or killed as members of the opposition. The Druze now choose instead to study elsewhere, including in Israel along with fellow Druze who are citizens of the Israeli state.

“The collapse of the Syrian state and the devastation there forced the Golan Druze to choose the rational option: integrate into the Israel sphere. It’s a practical integration. I can sum it up in four words: Recognizing reality, not Zionism,” he said….

“Recognizing reality” is a first, not a final, step. It’s a trajectory that the Druze inside Israel have already followed. That “reality” is that Syria is broken and bankrupt, while Israel thrives; that the Golan is now a permanent part of Israel, never to be relinquished, so the Druze need not worry about a return of Syrian overlords to the Golan who will punish those Druze who have made their peace with Israel and become citizens of the Jewish state.

So far, a minority of the Druze in the Golan who have become Israeli citizens vote in national elections, but it is worth noting that in three of the four largest Druze towns, Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, Buq’ata, and Ein Qiniyye, a majority of those who voted chose the Likud Party. It’s not hard to understand: they want to make sure Israel never returns the Golan to Syria.

Older Druze remain unsure about the wisdom of taking Israeli citizenship; their fear of a return of the Golan to Syria still haunts them. And even aside from that, they fear retaliation against their relatives inside Syria if it were to become public knowledge that they had become Israeli citizens.

“Some people say Israel did not really capture the Golan Heights, but the Syrian regime sold us out,” she said. “Others say that Israel captured the Heights and, in so doing, carried out mass murders and expelled many Druze from their homes. Many people don’t know the history and have no idea what the truth is.”

Both stories are, of course false. The first one diminishes the IDF’s feat in assaulting the Golan Heights, and driving the Syrian tanks from entrenched positions looming 9,200 feet above sea level. The second, a story about nonexistent Israeli atrocities – murders and expulsions of Druze – was made up by the Syrians, hoping thereby to promote Druze attacks on the Israelis. In fact there were no expulsions of Druze from the Golan, though some did flee, having believed Syrian propaganda about the wicked Israelis. Those Druze were invited by Israel to return to the Golan and many did.

She herself was born more than 30 years after the war. “I don’t know anything else apart from Israel,” Mila said.

Though her dream was to study medicine in Damascus, the civil war made that impossible. Instead, she studied in Israel, and since graduating, she has worked for several Israeli companies. She has also found time to travel overseas with her family.

Not having citizenship, she says, made life hard for her every step of the way, especially when traveling between countries, so she decided to request Israeli citizenship and improve her quality of life.

Mila could, of course, emigrate to another country, not necessarily in the Middle East. But she chooses to remain in Israel, to study in an Israeli university, to work in Israeli companies. She finds that life is good. And she knows perfectly well how good the Druze in Israel have it, how they are integrated into the society, and trusted enough to be treated as equals with Jews in performing their required military service. She says her Israeli citizenship makes life easier for her; what she really means that it makes her life better in every respect. She is now a citizen of the fairest, most democratic, most responsive, and most advanced country in the Middle East. She is representative of the new generation of Druze on the Golan, who are no longer fearful of a return to Syrian control, no longer worried about a weakened Syrian state being able to retaliate against Druze inside the country for the choices made by Druze on the Golan to become Israeli citizens.

With each passing year, the older generation of Druze, with their residual loyalty to Damascus, shrinks, and more and more young Druze, who have no loyalty to, or fear of, Syria, but have experienced Israel’s mild rule, and want to continue to live In such a polity. It’s cupboard love, at first – Israel offers prosperity, not economic misery – that then develops into a deep appreciation of Israel’s rule of law, especially when compared to the lawless Assad regime. Israel has said the Golan will never be given up. Now 41 years after the Golan was formally annexed, more and more Druze have become convinced that Israel means it, and are acting on that conviction. The 25,000 Jews who will now be settling on the Golan are an earnest of Israel’s intent to stay. And that makes it easier for the Druze on the Golan to emulate the Druze within Israel’s Green Line, and as new citizens to participate fully in the life of the Jewish state, including defending its very existence. It is not fanciful to expect that the Druze on the Golan will eventually provide their own share of officers, like the Israeli Druze Major General Ghassan Alion, to the IDF.

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