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The Druze Dilemma: Which Way to Turn?

An Israeli offer of at least partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights is on the table - but some Druze fear Syrian control will undermine prosperity

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 1992



MAJDAL SHAMS, GOLAN HEIGHTS

AS Israeli and Syrian peace negotiators sit down in Washington this week to discuss Israel's first-ever concrete offer to withdraw from parts of the Golan Heights, no one is more immediately concerned than the Druze villagers whose homes and apple orchards lie along the border.

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And after more than 25 years of Israeli occupation, they are torn over what to think about the prospect of being returned to Syrian sovereignty. A few prominent figures, including the Israeli-appointed mayors of the four Druze villages on the heights, are outspoken in their preference for remaining under Israeli rule - an attitude unthinkable in any of the other Israeli-occupied territories currently under negotiation in the Middle East peace talks.

Another small group makes no bones about wanting to see the Golan Heights revert to Syrian rule, as they say illegally occupied Arab land naturally should.

But most of the 16,000 villagers, guardedly keeping their own counsel, are maintaining the age-old Druze tradition of self-protective secrecy, uncertain which way their future will be decided.

"I can tell you I am pro-Israeli or pro-Syrian, but you won't know what I really think," says Hani Zahawi, a local trade union official. "We always keep things to ourselves, because we are a small people."

The Druze inhabitants of the Golan Heights, who have lived here for over four centuries, stayed in their villages when the other 125,000 Syrian residents fled during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, in which Israel occupied the strategic plateau.

They belong to a distinct Arab ethnic group, spread over mountainous regions of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, whose ancestors broke away from orthodox Islam nearly a thousand years ago. Still today, they keep the tenets of their faith a closely guarded secret.

"The Druze are great survivors in history," says Shmuel Shamai, an Israeli expert on the Druze at the Golan Research Institute. "They can change [outward] identity if need be because their soul is Druze, and a lot of deception goes on, especially in geopolitical situations where they don't know which side they belong to.

"Before all else," he adds, "they are pro-Druze." This characteristic caginess is evident from the way in which villagers who only a few weeks ago were willing to say openly they hoped Israel would retain the Golan Heights are now tight-lipped.

Sensing that a territorial compromise with Syria is in the wind, "if someone says he would rather stay under Israeli rule, maybe tomorrow the Syrians will come, and that would spell trouble for him," explains Shufi Aref, a local apple farmer.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is resisting Syria's demand that Israel withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights, as mandated by United Nations Resolution 242, chief Israeli negotiator Itamar Rabinovich last week offered "withdrawal on the Golan Heights."

And Israel would have to pull back only a mile or two from the current cease-fire line to leave almost all the Druze under Syrian rule again.

"It would be more difficult politically [for Israel] to give up one Jewish settlement on the Golan Heights than to give up 16,000 Druze," says Dr. Shamai.

This does not deter a handful of fiercely pro-Israeli Druze, such as restaurant owner Salim Shufi, from saying bluntly that "I feel Israeli." But Mr. Shufi is one of the 5 percent of Druze who chose to take Israeli citizenship after Israel annexed the Golan in December 1981.