Druze residents in the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams celebrate 62 years of Syrian idependence.
Druze residents in the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams celebrate 62 years of Syrian idependence. Photo by Jini
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Early last week the inhabitants of the four Druze communities on the northern Golan Heights were busy dealing with the storm that dumped up to a meter of snow on their towns and the roads leading to them.

But unlike the residents of Jerusalem and even their own near-neighbors in Safed and environs, the people in the northern Golan are accustomed to — and prepared for — large snow accumulations.

“If need be we can get by for three months straight without assistance,” said Salim Mili of Majdal Shams. He said people in the area make sure they always have supplies of food and fuel on hand.

Salman Fahr al-Din, also from Majdal Shams, attributed the town’s coping ability also to a close network of mutual aid that shines at times like these.

Some area residents, perhaps as a result of the extreme weather, had not yet heard about a government plan to increase aid to the Golan’s four Druze communities of the Golan. And when they did, some greeted it with mixed feelings or even indifference. Some individuals said Israel suddenly remembered the Druze in order to strengthen its hold on the area as the Syrian government weakens. Others were willing to accept that the government finally understood the necessity of improving the infrastructure in the Druze towns.

Under the plan, the government will spend 209.4 million shekels ($59.8 million) between 2014 and 2017 on the communities. Among other areas, the funds will go to education (54 million shekels), transportation infrastructure (80 million shekels), welfare agencies (10 million shekels) and tourism development (12 million shekels).

In recent years two government programs were aimed at building up Israeli Druze communities, but the four communities on the Golan Heights were not included.

“This is an unprecedented decision,” Mili said. “Never have such sums been invested here. The four communities — Majdal Shams, Masadeh, Bukata and Ein Qiniya — are all poor towns. Over the years there was ongoing maintenance, but never more than that. We have serious infrastructure problems, like dangerous roads, and more.”

“Some see the plan as political opportunism by the Israeli government, given the situation in Syria,” Mili continued. “They argue that it’s an attempt to strengthen Israel’s hold on the Golan Heights and there’s a minority that says we shouldn’t accept this money. But in the end these investments are required for several reasons: First of all, Israeli law applies to the Golan Heights and the Israeli government is obligated to equal rights to all its residents, and even under the Geneva Convention the occupier is meant to provide fair conditions for those who live under it.

“In the end, we have the right to get what’s coming to us,” Mili said, adding, “Even if it is an attempt at political exploitation by the Israeli government, most of the residents support the plan.” He conceded, however, that, “A few years ago, most residents would not accept this kind of government program. It seems that the political situation also affects people’s opinion.”

Fahr al-Din says he opposed government intervention in the past and still does. “No government does anything purely out of altruism, obviously they have an interest in strengthening the Israeli hold here. I see this as colonialist bribery,” he continued, but added, “If the government really is having pangs of conscience and wants to help us out of pure intentions, that’s good.”

A Bukata man who asked not to be identified described the sudden Israeli interest in the Golan Druze as “odd,” and said that if Israel thought the situation in Syria would enable it to hold on to the Golan Heights forever, it was mistaken. “We’re now approaching the end of the war in Syria and when it ends some of the talks to be held under international auspices will include the future of the Golan Heights,” he said. “The world will support such talks, as part of the overall debate on ending conflicts throughout the region.”

Fahd Safdie, an attorney who represented Bukata and Ein Qiniya in a High Court of Justice petition against the government, demanding equal funding, noted that the four towns had filed the petition in February 2012 and recently the government had been asked to respond to the court.

“Before the hearing the government decided to allocate budgets to strengthen the Druze communities and as a result we’ve withdrawn the petition,” he said.

Safdie said he was pleased by the government plan, and expressed frustration at “attempts to see a conspiracy in everything that the State of Israel does. When the state doesn’t give money, they complain, and went it does they claim it’s a conspiracy. So what do they want?”