“Moses said to Chovav, son of Reuel, the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses, ‘We are travelling to the place G-d spoke about, saying, ‘I shall give it to you’. Go with us and we shall treat you well…’” (Numbers 10:29)
Recent events have, for the first time in Israeli history, pitted the Israeli Druze against their host country in a moral dilemma with biblical roots and life-or-death implications.
Druze are considered infidel by Islam and, as such, have been targeted for attack by Al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria. Less than two weeks ago, 20 Druze villagers were killed by Sunni rebels in the Idlib province in northwest Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that a Druze village on the border with Israel was in imminent danger of attack.
“Hader is now totally surrounded by rebels, who just took a strategic hilltop north of the village,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The community of 140,000 Druze living in Northern Israel has called on Israel to protect their threatened brothers just a few scant kilometers across the border in Syria. In truth, Israel owes them a debt of gratitude.
Druze live in villages scattered around the region and have a principle of not seeking to rule, but rather to aid their host country. They have served with great honor in the Israel Defense Forces in combat positions and there have been many Druze martyrs who have died protecting the Jewish State.
Israel recognizes this and IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Moti Almoz reported that top IDF officers held a Golan assessment last week. He assured the Druze community that the IDF was taking measures “as part of the common cause and blood-alliance between us and our Druze brothers in the State of Israel.”
Despite this declaration, later the same day, the IDF declared the area near the northeastern border of the Israeli Golan a closed military zone, limiting access to residents of the area. Security sources said this was not because of any threat from Syria but to prevent access to the area from the Israeli side, where Druze have said they would cross the border to protect their brethren in Syria.
At odds with this is Israel’s role as a humanitarian presence in the Middle East. As such, the army allows injured, even hostile enemies, to cross the border for treatment at Israeli hospitals. This policy has created a difficult situation, in which Israeli hospitals may be treating rebels who are part of the effort that threatens the Syrian Druze loosely allied with the Assad government. This has created tension in the Druze communities in Northern Israel.
On two separate occasions this month, angry mobs of about 200 Druze surrounded an IDF ambulance transporting injured Syrians to Ziv Hospital in Safed. The Druze believed the Syrians to be part of radical Sunni groups actively attacking their brothers across the border, though authorities assured them that none of the injured were from the al-Qaeda connected Jihadists .
The second incident ended tragically as the mob came from their city of Maj Al Shams to set up a roadblock. They succeeded in stopping the vehicle and attacking the occupants, killing one of the injured Syrians and injuring two IDF soldiers who were protecting the injured Syrians with their own bodies. Additional security forces were called in and used crowd-control measures to disperse the mob.
Nine Druze have been arrested on suspicion they were involved in the attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Druze community leaders, one of whom, Ayoub Kara, is a minister from his Likud party. Netanyahu reaffirmed the bond between Israel and its Druze citizens, but condemned the attack.
“Your boys, our boys all serve and fight in the IDF and defend the country that belongs to all of us,” Netanyahu said. “We are all law-abiding, loyal citizens, and if someone violates these rules and takes the laws into their hands it is our duty to condemn it and to make sure that these violations will not become the norm. This is something we must prevent – the recurrence of such incidents.”
“I cherish the community, cherish its achievements, its contribution to the state in general and to the state’s security specifically,” Netanyahu added.
The leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, strongly denounced the attack.
“Of course we condemned everything that happened. Our tradition and religion are against harming an injured person or an ambulance. This is not our way, not our education…and we hope you will continue to lead this whole affair wisely. We are at your service,” Tarif said.
Israel cannot cross the border into Syria, even to help the Druze. Allowing Israeli Druze to cross into Syria to help their brethren would also open Israel to international censure.
The moral dilemma is clear however. The roots of the situation go deeper than this modern conflict. The Druze consider themselves to be the present day descendants of Jethro, the Midianite priest and father-in-law of Moses, who they view to be their chief prophet and founder of their religion (Exodus 3:1). They are secretive about their religion and do not proselytize. However, the Druze religion is a form of Abrahamic monotheism incorporating many aspect of other religion and philosophies. This seems consistent with Jethro’s biblical reputation as a priest to many faiths.
According to Nachmanides, a leading medieval Jewish scholar, the descendants of Jethro receive a portion of land in Israel, specifically the fertile land surrounding Jericho, just like the tribes of Jacob, and they assisted in conquering the land when the Jews entered, 40 years after Sinai. Until now, the Druze and Israel have had a mutually beneficial relationship based on the laws of citizenship. It might be that this difficult situation will require the two nations to explore the deeper roots of their connection.