A generation of Druze are facing a curious challenge of identity and loyalty. Crikey goes between the Purple Lines in an uneasy Middle East.
At the bottom end of Metula’s HaRishonim Street, where old men on tractors cart fruit into Israel’s northernmost building and boxes of fruit out of it again, Hadar Sela and I stand leaning on the yellow fence that opens out onto the UN Blue Line, which separates the country from Lebanon.
The flag across the way is not the red and white Lebanese one, however, with the country’s iconic green cedar at its centre, but rather the bright yellow standard of Hezbollah, with the organisation’s name written across it in green. The first letter of “Allah” reaches towards the heavens with a long assault rifle in its stylised grip. There is an Israeli Defense Forces base draped in camouflage netting a few streets behind us, but it is the Pri Metula packing plant that looks out across the eerily quiet border.
Hadar and I make our way through Metula’s streets, past HaRishonim Street’s various motels, one or two of them with holiday-makers out the front, unloading suitcases from the back of family sedans. If Tel Aviv’s hedonistic atmosphere betrays a sense of wilful ignorance, the city a place of laughter and forgetting, Metula’s calm suggests the opposite. As Michael J. Totten wrote in The Road to Fatima Gate, his book about the 2005 Cedar Revolution, it is impossible to mistake this calm for peace, and it seems to me equally impossible to mistake the village’s air of defiance for one of denial.
Indeed, what comes most immediately to mind as we approach Fatima Gate, or the Good Fence Crossing, which has been closed since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon 12 years ago, is the stereotype of the British stiff upper-lip and the famous injunction from that same set of isles to “keep calm and carry on”.
The fact that I am here with Hadar probably contributes something to this perception. If anyone embodies the combination of British pluck and Israeli chutzpah I seem to be picking up on — some might even say the hubris — it is her.
Born near Manchester to a nominally Church of England family, Hadar first visited Israel in the 1970s. She didn’t intend to remain in the country, but wound up prolonging her stay by three months. Her second visit lasted even longer and by the time she returned to England at its conclusion she knew that it wouldn’t be for long. She converted to Judaism for practical rather than confessional reasons — “It sped up the citizenship process,” she admits — and became an Israeli citizen in 1981. After working as a nurse for nearly two decades, treating Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese and at least one terrorist who refused to speak to her because she was a Jew and, perhaps worse, a woman, Hadar turned to blogging during the 2008-09 Gaza War, known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead, in order to combat what she saw as flagrant anti-Israel bias in the Western media.
“I also started writing about what it was like to be an ‘evil Israeli settler’,” she says with a roll of the eyes. “Raising children during an intifada, spending your summer in a bomb shelter, that sort of thing.” Those articles proved particularly popular.
On Metula’s western flank, where the Blue Line turns south between the town and its closest Lebanese counterpart, Kfar Kila, the grey concrete slabs of a new security wall are being maneuvered slowly but surely into place. The wall looks like a highway sound barrier, only without a highway to drown out. Were it not for this wall, or for the striking difference between the two towns’ architectural styles, you could be forgiven for thinking that they belonged, not only to the same country, but also to the same district council. I could throw a piece of the Pri Metula packing plant’s produce through the window of a Lebanese house from here. But there’s something about the paneless windows of the seemingly unoccupied buildings opposite that leads to me suspect that I might be gifted with a Katyusha rocket in return.
“Druze behaviour must be understood in light of the fact that the community has members in a number of countries and that those in one must be mindful at all times of how their pronouncements and actions affect those in the others.”
“Hezbollah use of a lot of these houses as weapon stores,” Hadar tells me, pointing across the border. “In 2006, they would fire from them, too. It makes it very difficult to respond in kind, because civilians do live in some of those buildings. Hezbollah essentially uses the local population as a shield. That’s one of the reasons we had to respond with a ground invasion.”
Hadar takes a photo of the new security wall for her records — “It’s gone up very quickly,” she says — and then turns, pointing to the east. “You think Kfar Kila is close,” she says. “But in Ghajar, over in that direction, the border runs straight through the town. It literally cuts it in two.”
From Fatima Gate, Hadar and I hitch-hike south to Kiryat Shmona and then take a bus east to the Golan Heights, where she lives on a kibbutz. But instead of heading home to Kfar Haruv, which would require us to travel south, we aim for the Druze villages of the north and for what is today the Israeli-Syrian border.
The Israeli flag disappears from the buildings as we take the winding road up past the ruins of crusader castles and the multi-coloured Druze one gradually begins to make an appearance. Numbering at around 125,300, Israel’s Druze population is the third largest in the Levant after those of Syria and Lebanon, though fewer than 10% of Golan Druze, whose numbers peak slightly north of 20,000, ever actually took the country up on its post-annexation offer of citizenship. The houses up here are beautifully built, perched improbably on 75-degree slopes. The Druze are the best builders in the Middle East, Hadar says, noting that a number of the houses in Kfar Haruv, including her own, were constructed by members of the minority.
“When I told the Druze who built our house that he’d done a brilliant job,” she says, “he said he’d built it to his own exacting standards. ‘After all,’ he said, “when Syria takes over the Golan and kicks you out, I’m going to be moving in.’ We had a good laugh about it.”Followers of an arcane offshoot of Shia Islam, which rejects Muhammad’s status as the prophet and incorporates elements of Neo-platonism and Christian gnosticism into its philosophy, the Druze have long served as the region’s political weathervane: when Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt came out against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad earlier this year, it seemed to many to be indicative of which way the wind was blowing in Damascus. The Golan Druze, who constitute the majority in four of the Golan’s northernmost villages, are yet to blow with a single breath one way or the other. Indeed, confrontations between pro- and anti-Assad Druze have reportedly become common in Majdal Shams, the largest of the Golan’s Druze villages. Reports have tended to focus, where they have been written at all, on those Golan Druze who consider themselves Syrian and pledge loyalty to the Assad regime.
“The only thing worse than having Bashar al-Assad supporting Hezbollah on our Lebanese border would be having him fall to al-Qaeda and having them on our Syrian one.”
But understanding and parsing Druze allegiance is difficult at the best of times, let alone in the Golan Heights, where the minority’s characteristic pragmatism runs especially deep. Hadar suggests that many reporters lack the sense of irony crucial to any nuanced understanding of the Golan Druze and the codes in which they so often speak. ”The simple fact of the matter,” Hadar says, “is that people out here will think one thing, say another, and then do something else entirely.”
“For example, an increasing number of Golan Druze are reportedly seeking Israeli citizenship,” she says. ”But the moment they go on the record they’ll tell you that they’re Syrians who want to return to Syria. You know some of them have gone and applied for citizenship. They know that you know. But they’ve got friends and family across the border who are at risk of being targeted if they say anything untoward.” Indeed, Israel’s Ma’arev newspaper last week published Population and Immigration Authority data suggesting “a rise of hundreds of percent” in the number of Golan Druze applying to the Ministry of the Interior for Israeli citizenship.
“I know one young man who wanted nothing more than to join the IDF as a fighter pilot,” Hadar continues. “But that wouldn’t have been acceptable in his village. It would have looked bad. I was one of the only people he could tell.” According to The Times of Israel, it is precisely this age group, “whose connection to Syria is generations distant, and whose perception of it has been marred by the bloody civil war,” that is now applying for Israeli citizenship in droves.
Druze behaviour must be understood, Hadar says, in light of the fact that the community has members in a number of countries and that those in one must be mindful at all times of how their pronouncements and actions affect those in the others.
“Does that mean that Bashar al-Assad is winning?” I ask. “If the Golan Druze are still claiming to be Syrian?”
“Well, the fact that an increasing number of them are reportedly applying for citizenship here,” Hadar answers, “suggests that right now it could go either way.”
We leave Mas’ade on foot at the conclusion of a lunch of hummus and grilled chicken hearts. Passing the burnt-out remains of an IDF tank, a grim reminder of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, we are now attempting to hitch-hike south in the direction of Merom Golan and the Purple Line that serves as the Syrian-Israeli border. There have been recent reports of Israeli disaster tourists coming up to the Purple Line to watch Syria devour itself, but the only other people sitting under the trees when we arrive, gazing out past Camp Ziouani and across the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone, are foreigners. The flag of the Syrian Republic can be seen in the distance. The country does not appear to be devouring itself today, at least not within earshot of the lookout, where we cool down with an ice cream each. Indeed, most of the cannon fire we hear is coming from behind us, on a training ground we cannot see.
As we wander down off the mountain, eventually hitching a ride along UNDOF line “Alpha” with two IDF soldiers who ask us not to look at the large military maps they’re carrying with them in the car, Hadar explains why she is reluctant to get excited about the uprising across the border. Originally worried that Assad might try to bring his downfall to the Golan, deliberately provoking an Israeli response in order to rally his fracturing country behind him, Hadar says her concerns have recently shifted to the rebels themselves.
“The only thing worse than having Bashar al-Assad supporting Hezbollah on our Lebanese border would be having him fall to al-Qaeda and having them on our Syrian one,” she says.
UNDOF lines “Alpha” and “Bravo” come within five hundred metres of each other at the Purple Line’s southernmost point and, now hitching with two of Hadar’s fellow kibbutzniks, we spend our final five kilometres on the road looking out at our third border for the day. As the sun sets over the Sea of Galilee to the west, the hills to the east dissolve first into indigo and then into grey, giving way to the night in the Kingdom of Jordan beyond.