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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

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HIS outlook is shared by Samir Daboussa, the mayor of Ein Kinya, who says he would rather stay under Israeli rule because "what is important to me is that first and foremost I feel Druze, and that there is a government I can live with in peace and advancement, that hasn't tried to tell me what to do."

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Mr. Daboussa's stress on economic prosperity and freedom is echoed by many of those who would rather live in Israel than in Syria, and who point to the relative poverty and political straitjacket in which their relatives in Syria live.

Such thinking, however, is little short of treasonous collaboration to other Druze, who feel Syrian before they feel Druze, and who insist that Syria is their natural home.

"The only way you can live normally, and enjoy your life, is when you are part of your community," argues Atef Abu Saleh, a Majdal Shams shopkeeper. "And our community is Syria. Here, we are isloated."

Tayseer Maray, a biochemist fervently opposed to Israeli occupation, is even blunter. "During the Syrian period, we were treated as any other Syrian," he recalls. "In Israel we are not, and we never will be equal to a Jew, because Israel is by definition a Jewish state."

That the Golan Druze are more prosperous than most of their cousins in Syria is undeniable. "But we don't think about that," says Abu Rabiyah Assad, who runs a grilled chicken joint in the village of Buqaata. "We are not worried about material issues, we are worried about the national question and principles."

And while acknowledging that Syria is no democracy, advocates of a return to Syrian rule point out that the Druze have not been allowed to hold even municipal elections since they came under occupation 25 years ago.

Both those who say they would rather live under Israeli rule and those who say they would prefer to revert to Syrian sovereignty claim their outlook is shared by 80 percent of their fellow Druze. But most villagers say they have no real idea of how the majority of their people feel.

Druze expert Shamai, who believes that "a large majority" would prefer to be under Israeli rather than Syrian sovereignty, "not because they are deeply pro-Israel, but because of the choice they face," suggests that the ideal solution for the Druze would be "autonomous, with open borders to both Israel and Syria.

"That way, they wouldn't have to pay a price," Shamai points out. "But realistically, they will end up on one side or the other of the border, and it will probably be on the Syrian side."

But whichever side of their villages the new border falls in any peace agreement, the Druze will have played no role in fixing it. "We don't decide whether we stay [in Israel] or not," says Mr. Zahawi. "If the decision were in our hands, we would not be afraid to express ourselves."

As it is, the only point on which almost all the Druze seem to agree, and on which they are open, is that come what may, people will stay in their homes. Having lived under Turkish, French, Syrian and Israeli rule over the last 100 years, "the Druze will never leave," says farmer Aref.

"The Israelis can come, the Russians can come, the Americans can come," he laughs. "We stay."