The Nazareth Magistrate’s Court overturned Tuesday the convictions of 16 Druze religious leaders for visiting enemy countries. The Druze sheikhs visited religious sites in Syria and Lebanon between the years 2007 and 2010. Under an agreement reached between the sheikhs and the state, they undertook not to travel to Syria or Lebanon again without coordinating with Israeli authorities.
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The prosecution’s announcement noted that prior to sentencing, in discussions between the state prosecutor and the head of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Muafek Tarif, the community leaders – Tarif, deputy Knesset Speaker MK Hamed Amar and the head of the Druze local authorities’ forum Jabber Hamoud – signed a public statement calling on Israeli Druze to “not travel to Lebanon or Syria without receiving permission from the relevant authorities.”
Prior to the hearing, in the framework of an agreement reached between all the defendants and the prosecution, they signed a commitment to respect the ban on traveling to enemy countries and agreed to ask for permission before doing so. The state accepted this and the court ruled – as the law allows – that the accused carried out the crimes listed in the charge sheet, but were not convicted as their convictions had been canceled.
The prosecution agreed to this after consulting with the attorney general, who examined various aspects of the incident, and the court approved this stance.
During the court hearing dozens of Druze sheikhs and religious leaders demonstrated outside the courthouse, raised Druze flags and demanded that the convictions be canceled, as in Druze and Israeli Arab eyes Lebanon and Syria are not enemy countries, but neighboring countries with whom religious, cultural and spiritual contacts must be maintained.
Former MK Sa’id Nafa, who was convicted last month for visiting an enemy country and contacting a foreign agent, said that the court decision is the result of public pressure and a display of strength by the Druze community, parties and nationalist political movements in Arab society. He said the court decision and prosecution’s stance prove that the sheikhs themselves were not on trial, but rather their contacts with neighboring countries such as Syria and Lebanon. For that reason, he said, the struggle for the right to such visits should continue, so that such visits, which do not affect national security, will continue.
In December 2009 the Northern District prosecution served indictments against the 16 Druze sheikhs for visiting enemy countries. Nafa was also accused of contacts with a foreign agent.The sheikhs traveled to Syria to visit holy sites and religious leaders in the country, and Nafa was convicted for maintaining contacts with a foreign agent after he met with the deputy secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Talal Naji. The court acquitted him of meeting with Hamas political head Khaled Meshal due to doubts about the evidence.
Discontent has been spreading through the Druze community in the past month following the sheikhs’ convictions. President Shimon Peres avoided visiting the grave of the prophet Shu’eib during the festival that traditionally features such visits and pilgrimages. The Druze Religious Council announced last month that the cancellation was due to fear that the president could find himself in the middle of a demonstration.
The spiritual head of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Tarif, said that the cancellation was not aimed directly at Peres, who is respected by the community, and he decided to cancel the celebratory aspects of the festival in protest against the sheikhs’ conviction, and against the president’s and law authorities’ ignoring of their request to cancel the conviction and pardon the sheikhs.