Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel Plans to Build New Druze Town on Land Belonging to Displaced Palestinians

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel Plans to Build New Druze Town on Land Belonging to Displaced Palestinians

Article excerpt

An Israeli government plan to build hundreds of homes for the country's Druze population faces stiffopposition, after it was revealed that the new community is to be located on the lands of Palestinian refugees.

The town, due to be built west of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, would be the first new community for members of Israel's Palestinian minority since the state's founding 68 years ago.

The country's 1.6 million Palestinian citizens constitute a fifth of the population.

Leaders of the Palestinian minority expressed outrage that officials had selected a site where two Palestinian villages were located until their destruction following the 1948 war that established Israel.

Archival evidence shows that the Israeli military razed more than 500 Palestinian villages after the war to ensure their residents could not return.

"The decision to build a Druze town on these destroyed villages is designed to light a fuse under the relations between the Druze and other members of the Palestinian minority," said Samer Swaid, a Druze political activist. "This is all about Israel reinforcing its divide-and-rule policies over us."

The choice of location is particularly sensitive because one of the destroyed villages, Hittin, has great historical and symbolic importance to Palestinian Muslims.

The village was established on the orders of Saladin to commemorate his victory in a famous battle against the Crusaders in 1187. The Crusaders' defeat, at the Horns of Hittin, led to their exodus from the Holy Land.

After 1948, Israel razed all of Hittin apart from its ancient mosque.

Sheikh Muwaffik Tarif, the Druzes' spiritual leader in Israel, was reported to be "taken aback" by the plan, sources close to him told the Israeli daily Haaretz.

A former Druze government minister, Salah Tarif, also objected, telling the newspaper the idea was "detached from reality." He added that it was "a band-aid that's meant to cover up the real problem-the condition of the existing [Druze] towns."

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced the plan for the town in January as part of "extensive activity" to promote the Druze population. The town would "facilitate the reduction of [economic] gaps between Druze towns and other towns" in Israel, his office said.

Some 400 houses are to be built in an initial phase, but eventually the town is expected to comprise 2,500 homes.

Israel has 115,000 Druze citizens inside its recognized borders, and a further 25,000 in the Golan, Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed in violation of international law.

The Druze are a secretive religious sect, an off-shoot of Islam, that emerged in Egypt in the 11th century. Today, most Druze communities are located in the mountainous areas of Lebanon, Syria and what is now northern Israel.

Unlike other Palestinian citizens and the Druze in the Golan, the Druze community in Israel is required to serve for three years in the Israeli military.

In return, the Druze were given the status of a separate national group. Israel categorizes other Palestinian citizens simply as "Arabs."

That has entitled the Druze to a separate school system, with its own curriculum. Traditionally, the chief benefits of military service for the Druze have been access to security-related jobs after the draft, including in the police and as prison guards.

But critics, including from within the Druze, say the community has otherwise faced the same, or worse, discrimination in land allocations and budgets as other Palestinian citizens.

"The Druze have not benefited as a community from the draft," said Hana Swaid, a former member of the Israeli parliament who now heads the Arab Center for Alternative Planning. "On the contrary, their loyalty and deference to the Israeli leadership were exploited to their disadvantage."

Swaid said research by his center showed three-quarters of Druze land had been confiscated, and many of their 14 existing towns and villages in Israel lacked master plans, making new development impossible. …

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