'We Need Equality': Tens of Thousands Attend Druze Rally Against Nation-state Law

'Despite our unreserved loyalty, Israel doesn't see us as equals,' Druze leader tells mass Tel Aviv protest ■ Right-wing activists spread fake correspondence on deal between Druze leaders and Labor party

Tens of thousands protest against the nation-state law at a rally organized by the Druze community, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2018.
\ Moti Milrod

Tens of thousands of people rallied in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square in a major protest led by the Druze community against the contentious nation-state law, which has stood at the center of dispute between the Israeli government and the Druze.

Protesters called for the country to endorse the Declaration of Indepedence and waved signs emblazoned with statements such as "If we are brothers we must be equals," "Our force is in our unity – the nation-state law differentiates between us."

Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze community, addressed the protesters at the beginning of the rally. "We were also proud of the country, we never contested its Jewish identity. We believed that part of its Jewish ethos would be a treat of full equality for its non-Jewish citizens, with the loyal Druze at their helm."

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Tens of thousands attended a Druze rally against Israel’s Jewish nation-state law

"No one can teach us about sacrifice and preach to us about loyalty, and the military cemeteries can attest to that," Tarif continued. "Despite our unreserved loyalty, Israel doesn't see us as equals. As much as we fight for the existence and security of the state, we are just as determined to fight together with you for Israel's character and the right to live in it with equality and respect," he added.

Tens of thousands of people attending the rally against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.
\ Moti Milrod

Tarif added that he was certain that Netanyahu's intention was to correct the damage that was done by hurting the Druze community. 

Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal Assad, whose argument with the prime minister during a Thursday meeting whose purpose was to reach an agreement between the Druze community and the government, also spoke at the rally. 

He quoted from the Declaration of Independence, emphasizing the sentence: "The State of Israel... will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."

Two young men from the northern Druze town of Peki'in, Russel and Hussein, came to the protest waving the Druze flag. "The entire village is coming today," Russel said. "We serve in the army, we do everything – and in the end we are [labeled as] second-class citizens."

Addressing the alternative legislation offered by the premier, Hussein said: "We don't need money, we need equality. He ought to cancel the law."

Israel's nation-state law

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Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai made an address in which he called for the removal of "the ugly stain" that the nation-state law has become. "Standing at this square today are our Druze brothers, and they are placing a mirror in front of our faces; this mirror reflect the terrible distance that was crossed from the days of the Declaration of Independence to present day," Huldai said.

"What was so simple in the Declaration of Independence has been intentionally omitted from the nation-state law, as part of an ongoing process that excludes women, members of the LGBT community, Reform Jews, conservative Jews, Circassian, Bedouin, Arabs, and you, our blood brothers- the Druze," the mayor added. 

Ex-Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin, also in attendance at the rally, attacked the lawmakers who passed the nation-state law. He claimed the law was "meant to serve small and pathetic political needs" and the right-wing "poodles" who he claimed were to blame for spreading lies and inciting. 

A fake correspondence between right-wing activists in Israel's Labor Party regarding a deal in the works between the Druze community and party members circulated on social media on Saturday ahead of the protest.

Members of the Druze community holding signs at a protest against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv, August 4, 2018.
\ Moti Milrod

Salman Halabi, hailing from the Druze town of Daliyat al-Karmel, explained why he came to the rally: "The only amendment that I'm asking for is that I will be equal. We give everything and don't ask for anything, just equality." 

Nadya Halabi, also from Daliyat al-Karmel, said: "Every time we hear about one law or another, but the nation-state law is the straw that broke the camel's back. You remember us only on memorial day [in remembrance of Israeli soldiers who died at war], during the rest of the year there's no value for us. Rights are not a favor. Bibi has created this trouble and polarized us, he must solve this."

Druze journalist Iman Safdi told Haaretz: "We ask that the nation-state law be completely revoked. We are not the Druze of yesteryear, we are young and educated people, we can't be bought with money and we're not Netanyahu's suckers. Bibi is losing his stock among the Druze society. We are united, and Bibi and the extreme-right will not polarize us."

"It's very moving to see the flag of the Druze community waving here in Tel Aviv," Safdi added.

Opposition head Tzipi Livni, also in attendance at the rally, spoke as well. "Our message is very clear – we are for the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This is a government that splits the Declaration of Independence in two, it doesn't give equality to the LGBT community nor to the Druze minority.

"The prime minister thinks that equality is some sort of bonus that he can give according to the size of the protest or according to whether someone served in the army," Livni continued.

Protest organizers called on all Israelis to join the rally in order to "express our protest and stand by our Druze brothers in order to preserve the balance in the country's character as a Jewish and democratic state."

"This is a protest for any citizen who views the [nation-state] law as a complete distortion of the Declaration of Independence and wants to demonstrate against the erasure of the value of equality from the definition of the country's identity," the statement read.

"All Israelis are equal," protest organizers said in their statement. They also announced that among the people expected to attend the rally are former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, ex-Shin Bet heads Yuval Diskin and Ami Ayalon and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

The demonstration is being held against the backdrop of the ongoing protest of the Druze community against the law as well as the separate legislation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered Druze representatives in an attempt to appease the community.

The alternative legislation sought to enshrine the status of Israeli Druze after the latter claimed that the law discriminated against them. But many Druze claimed Netanyahu's offer was insufficient and called for an amendment to be introduced to the nation-state law.

Fake conversations

The fictitious deal spread by right-wing activists garnered the interest of many Israelis browsing their social media outlets after a meeting between Netanyahu and leaders of the Druze community was cut short Thursday night.

Screenshots of fake conversations between members of a WhatsApp group titled ''The Labor Party- Core Headquarters'' were posted to the Facebook pages of two Labor activists with a large social media following, and the made-up chats were shared by at least 1,000 people.

The main activist announcing the deal in the fake WhatsApp conversation was a man named Avi Yaron. However, Haaretz has learned that there is no Labor activist with that name.

In the feigned correspondence, activist Yaron claims to have met with Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal Assad, a former senior Israel Defense Forces officer who wrote a Facebook post in which he said that the nation-state law would turn Israel into an apartheid state.

The activist said in the fake chat that an understanding was reached with Assad that the latter would receive a spot in the Labor party's Knesset faction: "The subject was sealed with Avi (i.e. Avi Gabbay, the chair of the party)," Yaron was quoted as saying in the chat.  

The non-existent activist was also quoted as saying that many Druze, "including the conservative right," will come to the protest against the nation-state law.

Assad was one of the key participants in Thursday's meeting between the prime minister and representatives of the Druze community. He told Netanyahu that he was not willing to accept his proposal for a separate legislation that would enshrine the status of Israel's Druze, saying that instead an amendment to the nation-state law should be passed.

Assad also told Netanyahu that he stood behind his sharply-worded statement against the nation-state law. Netanyahu then said he wouldn’t accept such an “insult to the dignity of the prime minister of Israel and the dignity of the state.” The meeting was subsequently cut short.

The Labor party filed a police complaint against the two right-wing activists who posted the fake correspondence on their Facebook pages.

The party also released a statement saying that "in recent hours, an employee of the party has been spreading a fake WhatsApp correspondence attributed to Labor activists. This correspondence is entirely fake, 100% fake, every name, letter and message here are simply not real.

These are the sorts of things that the hate machine in Balfour [a reference to the Prime Minister's Office, which is located in Balfour Street in Jerusalem] churns out to damage this evening's protest."

"We will act in accordance with authorities in order to investigate those who spread the fake correspondence," the statement read.

The Labor Party's chair, Avi Gabbay, also released a statement in which he said that "the scared Balfour spirit is blowing all over the fake WhatsApp correspondence that the Likud has been spreading since this morning. It's a devilish, dangerous spirit that is disintegrating our society and tearing it to shreds. Everything is permissible in [Netanyahu's] path to the ballot box and away from the investigations."

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assad also responded to the fake correspondence, saying that he is "embarrassed to respond to this nonsense. I can't believe that they would descend to this level. I can't understand if this was done on the prime minister's behalf or not. I don't recognize any of the things that were written there."