First elections for Druze in Israeli Golan divide community
Sameera Rada Emran's face should be everywhere. The 46-year-old Druze resident of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights is running to head her village's local council. But there are no posters bearing her image or campaign ads bellowing her name.
Druze residents of the Golan will for the first time join millions of Israelis voting in local elections next week. But candidates like Emran have had to keep a low profile amid a call by some Druze — who are members of a secretive offshoot of Islam — to boycott the polls, exposing a deep rift in the community over identity and the future of the occupied territory.
The chasm has pit community elders who pledge fealty to Syria and activists opposed to Israel's occupation against those with looser ties to their ancestral homeland who seek to have a stake in how their own communities are managed.
'I understand the opposition and where it comes from because we still live it. The Golan Heights is occupied and that is a fact. No one can deny that. On the other hand, we have been in this situation for more than 50 years,' Emran said. 'There are young people who need to live and we need to provide them a healthy and beneficial environment that allows them to progress.'
Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the territory in 1981 — a move that is not internationally recognized.
In contrast to the Palestinian territories captured in 1967, however, the Golan has remained quiet under Israeli rule. While most of the Golan's 26,000 Druze have chosen not to take Israeli citizenship, they hold Israeli residency status that gives them the right to travel and work freely. Residents speak Hebrew and the Golan, with its rugged landscape and many restaurants, is a popular destination for Israeli tourists.
Still, the community largely sees itself as inextricably linked to Syria. Many hope the territory might one day be returned to Syria as part of a peace deal.
Boycott supporters have been holding meetings to convince — or pressure — candidates not to run and voters to abstain and several would-be candidates have already withdrawn. Demonstrations against the elections have been held and a general strike is being planned for election day.
Emran said some of her relationships with neighbors have soured over her choice to run.
The divide has meant the frenzy of election campaigning has skipped over the sleepy Druze villages. Candidates have had to keep campaigning a hushed, low-key affair, with many appealing to voters through social media and quiet gatherings indoors.
Since the annexation, Israel has appointed representatives to local councils in the Golan's four Druze villages. But a yearning by more educated, younger Druze for economic opportunities and greater integration into Israeli society, coupled with a realization that the territory will not return to Syria in the near future, has sparked a desire by some to control their own fate, even if it means cooperating with what's still largely seen as an occupying power.
That, along with a sense that the appointees did not properly represent the community, prompted a group of young lawyers from the area to appeal to Israel's Supreme Court for a say in choosing their leaders. Their petition succeeded, paving the way for the first-ever elections on Oct. 30.
Israel has cast the elections as an 'historic' event. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri called it 'a move that strengthens Israel's democracy' when he announced the vote.
Israel's government sees the Golan Heights as an integral part of the country and a bulwark against radical Islam and growing Iranian influence in Lebanon and Syria. The Syrian civil war, in which hundreds of thousands have died and millions displaced, has only deepened this sentiment.
'Israel on the Golan Heights is a guarantee for stability in the surrounding area,' Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a recent visit to an ancient Golan Heights synagogue. 'Israel on the Golan Heights is a fact that the international community must recognize and as long as it depends on me, the Golan Heights will always remain under Israeli sovereignty.'
For now, much of the international community considers the Golan to be occupied territory with its status subject to an eventual peace deal between Israel and Syria.
Many Druze complain that in this uncertain status, Israel has not done enough to improve living conditions.
The candidates say their villages lack investment in education, infrastructure and tourism, a thriving industry that many say benefits nearby Jewish settlements but not the Druze.
Religious leaders supporting the boycott see elections as legitimizing Israel's rule. Other opponents view holding polls in occupied territory as a violation of international law.
Others point to the skewed democracy at play in the elections: While residency status in Israel grants the right to vote in local elections, only citizens can run for the head of local councils. Of nearly 27,000 Golan Druze, 17,000 can vote but only about 5,000 are citizens.
'We consider ourselves Syrian Arabs under Israeli rule, under Israeli occupation,' said Sheikh Hayel Sharaf, a religious leader who opposes the polls. 'For sure the Golan people will boycott.'
The war in Syria also looms large. For some residents, President Bashar Assad's imminent victory is a sign that they will soon be reunited with Syria.
For others, the seemingly endless fighting has presented a realization that their future does not lie in the war-torn state.
'It's clear that the religious leaders are losing control of the young generation because of pragmatic considerations,' said Yusri Hazran, a lecturer on the Middle East at Jerusalem's Shalem College. 'What is the alternative to Israel for them? There is none.'
Observers say they expect turnout to be low, in part because of the boycott, but say it could grow in coming elections as the taboo surrounding voting erodes.
Emran sees hope in her father, a Syrian loyalist with an open mind.
'I can say he's not happy' about her campaign, she said, proudly showing off a yellow ballot with her name on it. 'But he understands the need to do something and move forward.'