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A Druze political activist said that quite a few of his friends felt a sense of relief last week following the attack on the Israel Defense Forces outpost near Rafah. Not, heaven forbid, at the deaths of the five Israeli soldiers, he hurried to explain, but rather at the fact that the public's attention was diverted for a moment to a different Arabic-speaking minority's army service. This time the spotlight - plus compassion from the Israeli media and condemnation from the Arab press - focused on the Muslims and Bedouin who participate in combat activity in some of the hottest spots in the territories. They come from Arab towns in the Galilee, the Triangle and the Negev, the heart of the Arab community in Israel, which for the past four years has expressed its disapproval of the Druze community for sending its sons to serve in the IDF.

The Druze community currently finds itself in the midst of an emotional tempest, overwhelmed by feelings of uncertainty and distrust at a critical juncture of extreme polarization. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the territories has created the feeling among them that they cannot sit on the fence. "Today, either you are Ariel Sharon, or you are Ahmed Tibi," they are saying in the Druze community. The recent events followed the uproar over the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old Palestinian girl near an IDF outpost in Rafah in which Captain R., the Givati Brigade company commander, shot Iman al-Hams and then emptied his magazine into her body.

The fact that R. is Druze was widely publicized, placing the Druze community at the center of yet another uproar in the Arab-language press, which made sure to mention other, similar incidents from the past. The most recent one occurred in June of this year, when the Arab media throughout the Middle East published testimonies of Palestinian prisoners in Israel who described their brutal treatment at the hands of Druze Prison Service jailers. As in the previous affair, this time too the deputy leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Khamal Hatib fired off a broadside. In an article in the Arab press and later in an interview in Haaretz, he turned to the Druze sheikhs: "Enough of your silence. You must stand up and say that this act does not represent you. True, individuals are involved, but it is growing, and this is a phenomenon that must be halted in its tracks. It is not fitting for the Druze as Arabs, as Palestinians. The actions of some of your sons are repugnant."

There was a response. "If Khamal Hatib has something to preach, let him preach to others, not to the Druze community," inveighed Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, the head of the Druze Religious Council. Tarif underscored at every opportunity that the sound relationship between the Druze community and the State of Israel was not the business of the Arab community, and if Israeli security people behave wrongly, the complaints should be placed at their door and at the door of the system that they represent, rather than with the Druze. Tarif, like many other Druze leaders, said that no one has the right to interfere with the Druze's unique identity.

But what is that identity? Professor Kais M. Firro, a scholar whose field is the Druze in Israel and a lecturer on Middle East history at the University of Haifa, says that the Druze have undergone a "cultural revolution" in the past 50 years. Today, he maintains, "There is an invented tradition, and they accept it. It happened to the Druze just like it happened to many other minorities in the world." Firro says that it is due to the fact that many Druze have adopted Israeli culture and speak Hebrew more than English: "It raises difficult questions concerning whether the community is moving in the direction of assimilation and the loss of its unique identity."

Almost all the Druze identify themselves as Arabs, but most limit their Arabness to culture and language. They do not feel that they belong to the Arab collective because it has rejected them and views them as traitors. The word hawan - traitor - is well-known to all Druze, who find it deeply offensive. Almost all Druze define themselves as Israelis, but some limit their Israeliness to citizenship and army service. They do not feel that the state treats them as equals, and consequently feel "rejection and even betrayal, after they have given so much of themselves to the state." These are the conclusions of a study conducted by Dr. Rabah Halabi of the School of Education of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, which focused on the question of identity among the younger Druze generation during the conflict, and was based on interviews with 50 Druze men and women students.

Halabi notes that the Druze are involved in a process of "repeated restructuring" of their identity. "The twofold rejection (by the Arabs and Israelis) makes them feel displaced, suspended between heaven and earth, as if they are neither here nor there," writes Halabi. "The interviewees report considerable frustration and anger both at the Arabs that reject them and the Jews that deceive, even betray, them, but mainly at the Druze leadership that does not know how to navigate the ship on the stormy sea."

"The Druze's lack of confidence - that is our chief motivation," says a Druze commentator. "There is a lack of confidence in our Jewish partner, who does not take an interest, which is why the state of the villages is catastrophic, and on the other hand, we are running up an account with the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian world." In addition to the political rift between powerful outside forces, Dr. Halabi found an additional, perhaps even stronger rift in the social milieu between the modern and the conservative Druze worlds. The Druze villages, especially in the Galilee, represent a conservative environment, even more so than most Arab villages. On the other hand, the Druze are exposed to the most extreme forms of modern Western culture. Halabi predicts "a social catastrophe within 10 to 20 years" because of the gaps between Druze men and women. "When a young man leaves the village to go to the army, he may at first be in culture shock, but often he will eventually adopt many Western values along with its permissive lifestyle. Sometimes, he may even have a girlfriend outside the village. During this entire time, the women remain in the village and do not go out to work."

Against the background of outside pressure and identity crises, all the interviewees said that they identified completely with Druze identity. They described the contents of this identity as religious, although they themselves may not take part in the community's religious life. For them, being Druze is "a mystical bond with all those who are Druze everywhere in the world," as Halabi puts it. "In their pain, they revert to their Druze identity, to the warm, loving home, to the identity that they feel is safe and stable."