Religion, Real Estate Mix on Mount Carmel

A saintly Druze woman, who may or may not have lived in the 17th century, is keeping Israel Nature and Parks Authority officials up at night.

A saintly Druze woman, who may or may not have lived in the 17th century, is keeping Israel Nature and Parks Authority officials up at night.

Behind the mysterious saint is the story of the temporal authority that cannot impose its laws in the face of religious sensibilities, mixed with a healthy dose of political involvement and seasoned with real estate and development issues - an explosive concoction if ever there was one.

It all began on the eve of last Yom Kippur, a time when even the INPA rangers do not wander far afield. A group of residents from the Mount Carmel Druze villages of Isfiya and Daliat al-Carmel gathered in the western part of the Alon Valley in the heart of the Mount Carmel Nature Reserve, and began to build a handsome concrete house of prayer. Construction, in concrete or any other material, is prohibited in nature reserves; the rangers discovered the transgression immediately after the holiday.

Now for the real estate, political, and religious issues: The Alon Valley is a spectacular piece of landscape, about a kilometer wide and a few kilometers long, surrounded by green and tranquil pines, hidden from the eye behind the hairpin curves of the Beit Oren road, west of Isfiya and Daliat al-Carmel.

The area where the house of prayer was built has been declared an archaeological site by the Israel Antiquities Authority, containing prehistoric and Hellenistic remains. Near the prayer house are also remains of 17th-century vestiges of one of 14 villages built by Druze leader Fakhr a-Din, and destroyed in the early 19th century by the Egyptian ruler Ibraham Pasha.

Yet another complication: A significant portion of the INPA lands on Mount Carmel are agricultural lands registered to Druze and Jewish farmers and declared a national park in the 1950s, with the owners permitted only to work their fields, to the wrath of the Druze, who suffer from a real and painful dearth of land for new home construction.

One of those landowners is Abdullah Saba from Isfiya, who was convinced by certain Druze religious leaders to contribute one dunam of his agricultural land for the prayer house.

When the INPA rangers came to the site, the builders explained the structure would commemorate Sit Hudra, a Druze woman who once lived in the now-ruined village. The INPA and the Israel Antiquities Authority joined forces to obtain an administrative order to immediately cease and desist from construction.

The Druze builders, according to the INPA, "thumbed their noses" at the order. The INPA then turned to the Haifa court for a legal order, which the builders also apparently ignored, because in one night, the 70-square-meter prayer house was completed, down to its plastered walls.

According to a senior INPA official, the INPA then asked the police whether a few hundred police could be stationed at the site to secure it during the demolition of the building. The senior official said the police declined to intervene. The police responded that the INPA request came a short time before the October 28 local elections in the Druze villages, a time inconvenient for the police. Besides, the INPA did not clearly request a force to secure demolition of the structure, the police said.

Eventually, with the blessing of the interior and environment ministers, the INPA approached Druze public and spiritual leader Sheikh Muafaq Tarif, and a compromise was reached: The building would not be demolished, but nothing more would be added, and a construction license would be retroactively obtained. "The sheikh's involvement was essential," explained a senior INPA official. "There are 14 ruined Druze villages on Mount Carmel, and our nightmare is that in every single one a saint will turn up to which a monument must be built. Sheikh Tarif assured us that this would not happen."

But who is the sainted lady? Sit (lady) Hudra seems to appear in no written traditions. One scholar, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "The Druze adopted the Muslim and Jewish traditions of creating holy places. It is conflict over lands, not a religious conflict."

A senior INPA official added a note that might be considered comical under other circumstances. "It's all our fault. A few years ago an INPA guide took some Druze officials here and said, `I'm surprised you never heard the fable of Sit Hudra, who lived here once upon a time, 250 years ago...'"