In First Since 1967, Druze Villages in Israeli Golan Heights to Hold Democratic Elections

Residents of four villages divided in reaction between loyalists of Syria and those of Israel

The Druze village of Majdal Shams on the Israeli-Syrian border.
Gil Eliahu

For the first time since Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967, Druze communities on the Golan are set to hold democratic local elections.

Interior Minister Arye Dery announced the elections, which will take place on October 30, 2018, in a letter to Druze mayors earlier this week. The elections will be held in four towns – Buq’ata, Masadeh, Majdal Shams and Ein Kinya. Until now, these towns’ mayors had been appointed by the interior minister.

Some 23,000 Druze live in these four towns. Some are Israeli citizens, but most are only permanent residents, and by law, mayors and city councilmen must be Israeli citizens. Thus most of the residents of these towns won’t be able to run.

Consequently, said attorney Majd Abou-Saleh of Majdal Shams, he and many other residents oppose the elections.

“This isn’t democratic,” he said. “It’s a political move and nothing more, as if to say that people want to integrate into Israeli society, and that isn’t true. Our identity is Syrian, and that’s our heritage.”

But Salim Safadi, a jurist and businessman who served as mayor of Masadeh from 1998 to 2003, said he welcomed the decision, “as a former mayor who suffered from the intervention of various government officials in our decisions. Now, the mayor will be able to act freely, and will be accountable only to the voters.”

Safadi said control over mayoral appointments often served as a way for ministers to arrange jobs for their cronies or political supporters. Moreover, “if the local council didn’t function well according to the minister, he would replace it. Often, they just wanted things to stay quiet.”

Safadi accused successive Israeli governments of failing to invest in Druze towns – probably, he said, because of the possibility that the Golan and its Druze residents might be returned to Syria under a peace deal. The result is that these towns have very poor schools and infrastructure, he said.

But this situation began to change a few years ago, with the appointment of younger mayors who began demanding that the towns get their due, he added.

Saleh Abu Awad, a school principal in Buq’ata, also welcomed the upcoming elections. “Elections are a very healthy and logical thing,” he said. “It’s what we need most – for a person to elect his leaders, rather than them landing on him from above. It’s a good thing and I hope it will work out.”