Druze question Israel's aid to Phalange

One of Lebanon's bitter domestic communal feuds has unexpectedly spilled over into Israel.

Israel's Druze minority - members of a secret schismatic Islamic sect located in the mountains of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon - has been reunited with its Lebanese co-religionists only to find itself immersed in an identity crisis.

The Israeli Druze fear that Israeli government support of Christian Phalangists in Lebanon - the party of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, which has been involved in a series of ugly incidents with Lebanese Druze since the Israeli invasion - may redivide Lebanese and Israeli Druze and threaten the special relationship between the Israeli Druze and their state.

The Druze in Israel, unlike Israeli Arabs, have sworn a blood oath to the Israeli state and serve with distinction in its Army including units now in Lebanon. But as Israeli Druze soldiers and notables mingle with the larger and more important Lebanese community and reestablish family and religious links ruptured by the 1948 war, they have begun to envision themselves as part of a united Druze community in the region.

''The Druze are one sect, despite the blood oath we have sworn. It is important that the government of Israel remember this,'' said Druze Sheikh Jaber Muadi, a former Israeli parliament member.

The special nature of the Israeli Druze community of about 55,000 could be understood at a wedding in this typical Druze town of one- and two-story square concrete houses nestled in the hills of the upper Galilee. At the head of the procession were notables in traditional black baggy pants, jackets, and white flowing headdress, led by white-bearded spiritual leader Sheikh Amin Tarif in white turban and black cloak. Behind were the women, in festive dresses and white gauze kerchiefs. They are the keepers of tradition in the conservative, insular Israeli Druze community. They rarely work or leave the village.

But among the Arabic-speaking village men, fluent Hebrew was exchanged with a dozen Israeli military officers, guests at the wedding. They came from the unit of the disproportionately large number of Druze men who serve in the Army, police, and border police in this, as in most, Druze villages.

Druze leaders in the 1950s - conscious of their minority status and of past hostility between them and their Muslim Arab neighbors - asked to be included in compulsory military service. This is the key to acceptance in Israeli society, which is not held by the Arab minority. Indicative of their loyalty and their opposition to Palestinian radicalism, three Druze guests were serving as military replacements for elected Palestinian mayors on the occupied West Bank. The mayors had been ousted by Israeli authorities for sympathies toward the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In recent years some younger Druze have voiced complaints about a lack of jobs, housing, and development in their towns and a small number have sought exemption from Army service, some claiming to be ethnic Arabs. A more disturbing crisis hit the entire Israeli Druze community this year when Israel extended its law to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and compelled 12,000 Syrian Druze living there to carry Israeli identity cards. The Golan Druze held an unsuccessful six-month commercial and municipal strike during which they appealed for help to Druze in Israel.

But talk at the wedding was of visits to Lebanon (with special Israeli military permission); of the ''modernization'' of Lebanese Druze, which some in Julis fear will infect their young; and of how to help the Lebanese Druze ''heartland'' whose population has been estimated at from 180,000 to 400,000. Several delegations of Lebanese Druze notables have visited Israel asking Druze there to intercede with Israeli authorities to halt revenge-seeking by Phalangist Maronite Christians. The Maronites are age-old rivals of the Druze and have scores to settle from the recent Lebanese civil war.

''The Phalange is operating under the umbrella of the Israeli Defense Forces, '' says former parliament member Zaidan At-she, who recently visited Prime Minister Menachem Begin's office with several other local Druze notables to urge the government to act. Mr. At-she, who stressed that Israeli soldiers themselves had behaved properly, requested that the Israeli Army remove roadblocks set up by the Phalange near Lebanese Druze villages, and obtain the release of several Druze whom the Phalange kidnapped. He spoke bitterly of the recent killing of a Druze woman and her two sons near Bhamdun in the Druze-dominated Shouf area of Lebanon.

On July 2, Prime Minister Begin gave Sheikh Tarif a written assurance that Israel would protect the Lebanese Druze. It was a promise repeated in a subsequent letter. But Mr. At-she, who served as the first Druze foreign service information officer with the Israeli Consulate in New York City, says this pledge is not being fulfilled.

''We know Israel has an interest in supporting the Phalange,'' he said, ''but we can never tolerate that it should be at the expense of the Druze people.'' Many Druze soldiers serving in Lebanon are upset by events there and a few have reportedly been jailed for leaving their units to come to the aid of besieged Lebanese Druze.

Ironically, the Israeli Druze are asking Israel to help the forces of Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt, titular head of the leftist National Movement and an ally of the PLO. (A small group of Lebanese Druze headed by Emir Majid Arslan backs Mr. Gemayel.) But Mr. At-she and other anti-PLO Druze leaders insist their fraternal support rises above politics. ''The Druze are like a copper tray,'' he says. ''If you hit it on one side the whole tray resounds.''

Moreover, in the kind of twist common to Middle East tribal politics, Mr. Jumblatt's late father, Kamal - a philosopher and patriarch who was murdered by the Syrians and was anathema to Israel - is revered by Israeli Druze youth because of his prominent position as an Arab thinker.

Israeli Druze leaders who have met followers of Mr. Jumblatt in Lebanon say they are not anti-Israel, but backed the PLO because it helped them against the Phalange. ''They were very realistic, very open-minded toward Israel,'' says Mr. At-she.

The former Knesset member has requested that Israeli government officials meet Mr. Jumblatt, but so far, he says, only opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has done so. He says high Israeli officials told him that ''the Lebanese Druze should be patriotic,'' a euphemism for supporting Mr. Gemayel's government.

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