Israel’s Nation-state-law Controversy Casts Shadow Over Landmark Golan Druze Elections

Torn between Syria and Israel, Druze living in the Golan Heights prepare to vote in local elections for first time – but questions of citizenry plague the vote even before it started

Samira Rada-Amran, one of 24,000 residents of Druze villages in the Golan Heights that will hold local elections for the first time since falling under Israeli sovereignty, July 2018.
Kyle S. Mackie

GOLAN HEIGHTS – When Samira Rada-Amran goes to the polls in her tight-knit village of Ein Kinya this October, in the foothills of the Israeli side of Mount Hermon, it won’t only be as the first Druze woman to run for mayor in Israel. It will also be the candidate’s first time voting in any election.

Rada-Amran, 47, is one of about 24,000 residents of the four Druze villages in the Golan Heights that will hold elections for the first time this year since Israel captured the still-disputed territory in 1967.

And as one of the few Israeli citizens with the privilege of running for mayor in what was already a highly controversial contest, Rada-Amran and her fellow candidates now have to grapple with the uproar in the Druze community about the new Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.

The law has cast another shadow on a fragile exercise in democracy in the Golan, where unlike Druze Israeli citizens in the Galilee, the community is much less integrated into Israeli society. Indeed, while Galilee Druze serve in national politics and the army, it’s extremely rare for those in the Golan to do so. Most Golan Druze also opt out of accepting Israeli citizenship.

The first elections in the four Golan Heights Druze villages of Majdal Shams, Ein Kinya, Masadeh and Buqata, which are currently scheduled for October 30, were called last year in response to a High Court petition by a group of local lawyers. Even so, opponents in the Golan are condemning the fact that elections are being held at all in a region that’s still internationally recognized as occupied – and the recent legislation has only fueled skeptics.

The Druze village Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, July 30, 2018.
Kyle S. Mackie

“Not only will these local elections be undemocratic, they will also violate international law,” read a February 2018 statement by the rights group Al-Marsad, which is based in Majdal Shams.

Wael Tarabieh, manager of Al-Marsad’s economic, social and cultural rights program, said he would rather have the Israeli government continue appointing mayors for the Druze villages of the Golan, as it has done since 1967, even if that means having an Israeli Jew in charge.

“I would prefer to see an Israeli mayor appointed here as a professional at managing municipalities,” Tarabieh said, “so it’s the same thing as when I go to the hospital or the bank and to all the governmental offices.”

Emphasizing that such an eventuality was just his personal opinion, Tarabieh explained how the elections risked reawakening divisions between the large families of the Golan and putting residents in the unfair, if not impossible, position of choosing between accepting the Israeli presence or embracing President Bashar Assad’s dictatorial regime in Syria.

As Tarabieh put it, even if many Golan Druze still identify as Syrian, “any normal human being will choose not to take his family to death. Any normal human being will choose to live in an economic system in which he’s not under the poverty line.” For Druze in Israel, especially the younger generation, identifying as Syrian no longer necessitates support for the brutal Assad regime.

Druze loyalty and identity in the Golan Heights has as many nuanced expressions as people you speak to. Rada-Amran, the Ein Kinya candidate, doesn’t identify as Syrian, even though her father does fiercely. He was born in Majdal Shams before the Six-Day War, when Israel seized control of the region from Syria. He also served in the Syrian army.

In a region where just 12 percent of the population currently holds Israeli citizenship, according to the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority, only citizens are eligible to run for mayor. But permanent residents 18 and older can vote and run for a seat on the soon-to-be-elected regional councils.

“This law now definitely plays into the hands of the people who object to the elections,” Rada-Amran said. People are saying, “Why should we vote? Why should we acknowledge this country that’s not acknowledging its residents? And we are not its residents in the first place – we are a conquered area... maybe they are right.”

“Wasn’t it obvious that Israel is the state of the Jewish people?” Rada-Amran asked, exasperated. “Isn’t it obvious that Hebrew is the national language? Who didn’t know that?”

Tarek Al Safadi, a mayoral candidate 20 minutes up the road in Majdal Shams, is less concerned about the new legislation’s impact on the coming elections. Like Rada-Amran, he also has relatives in Druze communities in the Galilee who served in the Israeli army. He even worked for the Israeli government, mostly supervising checkpoints on the borders with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Tarek Al Safadi, a mayoral candidate for the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan, July 31, 2018.
Kyle S. Mackie

The only part of the law that troubles him is the contentious Article 7, which states that Israel “views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

“It’s fine with me, but you need to also give to the other side, to the other people,” like Druze, Muslims and Christians, Safadi said. Urban development is a major issue in Majdal Shams and one that both he and former Mayor Dolan Abu Saleh are campaigning on, albeit quietly – most campaign talk is taking place on Facebook or in personal conversations right now.

Despite the strong opinions emerging both for and against the elections, not everyone is invested in the unprecedented political situation playing out in the Golan Heights.

“I don’t care whether this is Israel or Palestine or Syria,” said Jalaa Abu Saleeh, owner of the Why? Restaurant and Café, which he says was the first bar-restaurant in Majdal Shams when it opened seven years ago. With the music of the Buena Vista Social Club drifting out onto the restaurant’s terrace and his 8-month-old daughter sleeping at his side, Abu Saleeh said he liked how young Druze people in the Golan take advantage of the good parts of Israel, like its universities, and ignore the bad parts, including the entire political system – and presumably also the nation-state law. 

“We don’t go to the army, we don’t have passports,” Abu Saleeh said, describing many of the potential voters in October’s elections. “Because of this we don’t have to care about politics.”