'The Guinea Pigs of Israel'

What some consider to be a mundane matter - the merger of two municipalities - has sparked strong opposition in the Druze sector, and the emergence of the first women's political organization of its kind there

It's hard to believe, but it all started because of a weaving class aimed to restore the former glory of that art, during conversations over the loom. But things developed quickly from there. And then, two months ago, Za'akat Nashot Isfiya (literally, the Outcry of the Women of Isfiya) was established, the first political movement of its kind, of several dozen Israeli Druze women. The very idea of women organizing is so revolutionary in that sector of the population that even the undramatic trigger event - a protest against merging the municipalities of Isfiya and Daliat al-Carmel - does not diminish its impact.

Several women gathered at a meeting held two weeks ago in the beautiful home of Samira Azam, who has a master's degree in education, teaches Arabic at a high school in Isfiya and is the mother of four. Nuha Azam is a housewife, social activist and the mother of three; Azhar Zahar holds a degree in business administration, works at Bank Leumi in Daliat al-Carmel and is the mother of four; and Imtiaz Mansour is an organizational consultant specializing in coaching. All but Samira Azam are traditional and cover their heads with scarves; according to Mansour, her husband, a cleric, supports her activity.

Discussion during the meeting's first two hours revolves around the state, discrimination, the definition of the women's identity in a country that assigns labels to people - and all this without even touching on the issue of the two municipalities. But then it all became clear. All these seemingly irrelevant topics were not a prologue to the matter for which the women gathered, nor were they diversions from it: They are the issue itself. The struggle against merging the municipalities is just the rationale that incorporates all the other grievances.

To achieve their goals, the four women have gathered a stack of analyses, data and other documents, and have also enlisted the support of organizations controlled by men, of their clerics and of Knesset members. In the past, at least two of the women were part of the struggle against the cellular phone antennas in their village and the initiative to burn them down. Since then there haven't been antennas in Isfiya, but there is no reception either.

Following is a brief history of the plan to merge the two municipalities which the foursome so vociferously oppose, as women and as Druze: In 2003 then interior minister Avraham Poraz (of the now-defunct Shinui party) proposed an initiative to combine dozens of municipalities around the country, including Daliat al-Carmel and Isfiya. Most unification plans have evaporated since then, but the latter two were merged to become Ir Hacarmel - Carmel City. However, aside from the municipal logo on official bills and announcements, it seems that very few residents actually define themselves as belonging to Carmel City. Samira even says that every time she returns home to Isfiya from Daliat al-Carmel, she feels as though she has crossed a border.

The cities of Isfiya and Daliat al-Carmel are next to each other, and their borders are indiscernible. But it is exactly this kind of geographical observation that makes Samira Azam indignant. "What is the difference between Ramat Gan and Givatayim? Why did they cancel the unification of the Krayot [Haifa's suburbs]? Only here, all of a sudden, people look for a striking difference. We were created as an independent entity. This is our identity and this is how it must remain. But we are the guinea pigs of the State of Israel."

The women are disgruntled mostly because of the fact that Daliat al-Carmel's size affords it preeminence in the forced union, and they are upset with the Druze leadership, which agreed to the move. But the main target of their resentment is the state. "Instead of unification, this forced merger has resulted in a rift," Samira adds. "It is impossible to point to even one positive outcome. There is no difference between their saying previously that the sewage flows in the streets of Daliat al-Carmel and Isfiya, and their saying now that the sewage flows in Carmel City. It's still the same sewage."

"The clan structure has also remained intact," adds Azhar, referring to the practice of voting in local elections according to extended family affiliations. "If the expectation was that turning us into a city would do away with the clan system, leading us to elect worthy candidates - this hasn't happened. The social reality isn't changing - and even if it is, it is doing so for the worse."

Samira ironically remarks that had the new status as a city brought even the faintest whiff of smoke of even one factory to the village, she would have been able to brag that at least she now "enjoys" a serious urban pollution levels. Actually, there is a certain level of air pollution in Carmel City, but it comes from the factories at the Check Post and in Nesher.

Nuha puts forth an argument with which all the women agree: "The whole idea of life in a city doesn't suit us. A city, by its nature, attracts new people, skyscrapers, foreign leaders. This is not what we want to be; this wasn't why our sheikhs came here hundreds of years ago looking for an isolated mountain to preserve both community and religion."

We want progress, the women say, but in the village context. And they further claim that it can indeed be achieved. The women identify the dwindling voices of support for the unification as those of "interested parties sent by the government," which is motivated by classical divide-and-conquer motives, as well as the desire to enlist voters, especially for Kadima. They have no doubt that MK Majalli Whbee and his brother Samir, who serves as the prime minister's advisor on Druze affairs, supported the merger with the aim of benefiting Kadima, not the Druze sector.

Rife with politics

The comparative data presented by Mansour are also rife with politics: She asserts that the budgets of all Druze municipalities taken together equal that of one middle-sized Jewish settlement in the territories. The number of inhabitants in Ma'aleh Adumim, she notes, is almost the same as that of Carmel City, which has a population of 26,000. In contrast, the municipal jurisdiction of Ma'aleh Adumim is comprised of about 50,000 dunams (12,500 acres), whereas the municipal jurisdiction of Carmel City, after the expropriations, is about 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres).

Samira pulls out what the women consider to be their winning argument: "Yes, we do want uniqueness and differentiation. So what? It was on this principle of uniqueness and differentiation that the State of Israel, which calls itself Jewish and democratic, arose. It is indeed democratic for Jews, but it is Jewish for us. We, women who are hurting, will explode like a time bomb in the country's face."

Her unwavering identity is that of an Arab Druze woman: According to Samira Azan, Israel imposed the artificial distinction that is made between Arab and Druze. The women have a ready answer to the question of where they were during all these years, when men conducted the struggles in the name of the Druze: "We waited on the sidelines for 60 years and did not speak out. We sat there quietly and we learned, we acquired education, we worked. The resulting contact with Jewish society revealed our community's distress to us. The problem with the men is that they have gone with the flow of the existing situation. But we, too, have a say in this. When one-half of society is not part of a struggle, the struggle is not whole. The women constituted society's paralyzed sector. Now the men are so frustrated that they are happy to find a partnership."

And, indeed, "the women of Isfiya" enjoy the support of an "intellectuals' committee," founded with the aim of revoking the unification, and of religious figures. Even the community's spiritual leader, Muafak Tarif, has given them his blessing. But they are not trying to base their authority solely on Druze community leaders, but also, and mainly, on available data: The average income of a family in Isfiya is about NIS 4,000; in 60 to 70 percent of families, the man is the sole provider.

"If we become one municipal entity, with the resulting high taxes, rental fees, education expenses and everything else that is derived from city life - how will a family, which is already now having a hard time getting by on NIS 4,000 a month - manage to survive," Azhar wonders aloud.

In a position paper they wrote, the women argue that the merger has already resulted in tax increases and has compounded residents' distress. But the main thrust of their anger is directed at the fact that this municipal plan is being forcefully imposed on them in the name of progress, which at the same time is not occuring in other areas. "Our society's only refuge is service in the security forces, at the expense of neglecting higher education; we are the state's watchdogs," Mansour asserts cynically.

Samira expresses regret that her son is serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces; had he asked for her opinion today, she would have told him not to enlist. Mansour is actively encouraging not serving in the IDF and is urging her nephew, who is facing conscription, not to go.

What next? "We are not asking ourselves," says Samira, on behalf of the women, "whether we will go into politics, but rather whether in its present state, the Knesset is a place we want to go."