Answering to Higher Authorities

Two conflicts related to construction in the Golan highlight the delicate balance of power in an area where Israeli rule comes up against a traditional society that has its own codes.

In Druze villages on the Golan Heights, they say that hundreds of years ago Sheikh Hazuri, who is buried at the foot of the Nimrod Fortress, would greet passersby on the road leading from Damascus to Acre with bread and salt. Those whose intentions were peaceful enjoyed the sheikh's refreshments and blessings, it is said, and those whose sights were set on war changed their minds after eating with him. These days, however, there is a violent battle raging over the sheikh's tomb, and bread and salt are not going to calm things down this time.

Turki Damaksi at the Sheikh Hazuri’s tomb.
Yaron Kaminsky

The tomb of Sheikh Hazuri (or Nabi, as he is referred to by the Druze ) is located next to Route 989, leading from the Kibbutz Sa'ar factory to Neve Ativ, near a memorial for fighters of the army's Sayeret Egoz commando unit. Below the fenced-in structure are three buildings - one of which contains the sheikh's tomb, a grove of some of the most ancient oak trees in the country, well-tended lawns, an orchard of fruit trees, and picnic facilities used mostly by members of the Druze community who come on pilgrimage to the site.

About a decade ago Ilan Mils, a farmer and entrepreneur who lives in Moshav Neveh Ativ, applied to the authorities for permission to establish a tourism project called Havat Ha'ikar (the Farmer's Ranch ), a few dozen meters from the mausoleum complex on the other side of a graveled area that serves as a parking lot. In April 2002, the Israel Lands Administration gave him a permit to begin the planning.

In November 2008, Mils and the ILA signed a development agreement; a month later the plans were approved by the Ramat Hagolan regional council's planning and construction committee. Last July Mils hired a Druze contractor from the village of Buqata and started the infrastructure work. He claims that a week later representatives of the Druze Waqf (religious trust ) made it clear to him they intended to stop the project, because of its proximity to the sacred site.

According to Mils, under pressure from the Waqf, the Druze contractor gave up the project. Mils then hired a Jewish contractor and work resumed last August. At that time, dozens of young Druze men came to protest. Mils called in the police to disperse them and enable the continuation of the work, but says the police refused to intervene on his behalf and only kept the two sides apart.

Mils was subsequently summoned to a meeting with the commanders of both the Golan police station and the Galilee police district, and was asked to stop the development work and not to move onto the land. He says the police explained their request by saying they had intelligence information to the effect that continuing the work would lead to fierce resistance and disturbances of public order. Since then the work has been stopped by the authorities.

During the past year, Mils has applied to the authorities several times and has asked to be allowed to continue his project, which had been approved by all the relevant authorities, apart from the police. The matter reached the highest levels in the Israel Police and the desk of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, but Mils' requests were turned down. Over time the fences demarcating the building site were pulled out and flags of the Druze community were flown over the area, to make clear who the landlord is.

Recently, Mils contacted the Regavim Movement for the Preservation of the Nation's Lands, an organization associated with the right wing that fights illegal construction, especially in the Arab sector. About a month ago, with the organization's help, he submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice, asking it to order the police to enforce the law and enable him to continue construction on the site. The petition severely criticizes the impotence of the police in dealing with those who disturb the public order, and states that the absurdity is even greater in light of the fact that two of the structures in the Druze compound were built illegally. In the wake of the petition, the fight has been joined by additional organizations with right-wing nationalist leanings, including Hashomer Haivri and Im Tirtzu.

"This is a holy site and we will not let anyone harm the values of our religion," says Turki Damaksi, who oversees the site in question on behalf of the Druze Waqf. "From the moment we understood the plans of the settler from Neveh Ativ, we expressed our opposition to the project. We did not believe they would even permit him to build a complex of such a nature adjacent to our holy place. After all, it would offend our public if immodestly dressed women came here, if they sold alcohol or if they did anything else contrary to the values of the Druze religion. The way it looks at the moment, no [Golan] Druze will allow the project to be implemented. And this resistance will also be joined by the Israeli Druze and Druze from all over the world."

Damaksi does not deny the claim that two of the buildings in the complex were built illegally, but says there was no alternative, "because the State of Israel has never given Druze citizens building permits for holy sites." He chooses his words carefully, but makes it clear there is no scope for compromise. "This is a holy site. The Jews certainly would not be prepared to have their holy places harmed," he declares.

"It was a mistake to permit the building in the first place," says a police source involved in the affair. "When you're dealing with sensitive matters involving land and holy sites, the permit-granting authorities should use better judgment. If there were even the slightest concern that the Druze would object to building at this site for religious reasons, the plans should not have been approved. This is because the consequences are obvious, after all, and no one here wants a Druze intifada on the Golan."

According to this same source, the crisis has to be solved "above the law, because no law can help here. In recent years," he says, "the Druze on the Golan have understood the limits of the power of the state and of the enforcement authorities. They are walking a tightrope and they know how not to fall. With respect to certain matters, they do what they want because they know the police will not be able to deal with the prolonged popular struggle they might conduct."

The source adds that, "with respect to the criminal realm, this is a population that isn't problematic, but in other respects, which concern the Druze as a public and a community, the law enforcement authorities do not have the ability to cope. Most of them do not hold Israeli identity cards, and insofar as is possible, they do not recognize the state's institutions."

Another building project in the area that is stuck is a new neighborhood the Druze have asked to build north of Majdal Shams. In September 2008, inhabitants of the village began paving a network of roads on the slope of Mount Hermon, part of a larger plan for expansion of the town. For more than two months they worked unhindered. Israel Nature and Parks Authority wardens and the Interior Ministry claim the unavailability of a police escort prevented them from visiting the site to issue stop-work orders.

The Regavim organization, which has petitioned the High Court in this matter as well, claims that there, too, the police have refrained from intervening. Thus, under the auspices of the Waqf and without conforming to the master plan for the village, extensive development work was carried out in what was defined as a nature reserve. For months, heavy machinery operated freely in an area of about 300 dunams (75 acres ), creating the infrastructure for a system of roads one and a half kilometers long, in one area, as well as a strip of about 200 meters elsewhere, defined by the ILA as not belonging to the village at all.

Dr. Naziah Brik, an architect and town planner from Majdal Shams, says the most recent master plan for the village, from 2005, does not take into account population growth or the reserves of land needed for the village. According to Brik: "The housing shortage in the village is nearly incomprehensible. In terms of population density, we are living here in a situation much worse than many refugee camps. The initative to establish a new neighborhood for 700 families was put forward by the Waqf, on lands we define as musha'a - jointly owned by all the inhabitants of the village."

Brik is aware that the development work was done in contravention of Israeli law but, he argues, "Jewish citizens get lands free in the Golan whereas we, the original inhabitants of the place, are suffering from unbelievable discrimination. This is a traditional society that wants to preserve its identity and uniqueness and this has to be done within the area of the village. The young people will not leave for somewhere else, and high-rise construction, something that has been proposed by various planning elements, is not relevant to our way of life here."

He says the village does not have other accessible land reserves and "the only lands that might still have been available for building close to the village are taken by the army or minefields."

The day after Regavim filed its petition with the court, work at the site was stopped voluntarily. Brik says the stoppage is temporary, because now all that remains is to build the houses, and the demolition orders will be issued to private individuals and not to the plan to which the entire village is partner. He says a number of high-ranking officials have taken an interest in the housing shortage in the town and are in negotiations for authorization of the new neighborhood.

Earlier this month the police submitted its reply to the High Court, stating that an investigation has been opened into the infrastructure work in Majdal Shams, and that "it has been decided to wait with actions that may constitute a return to the earlier situation, so as not to harm the investigation carried out thus far."