First elections for Druze in Israeli Golan divide community

Druze residents of the Golan will for the first time join millions of Israelis voting in local elections next week. (AFP)
Updated 27 October 2018
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First elections for Druze in Israeli Golan divide community

  • Some Druze members of a secretive offshoot of Islam are calling to boycott the upcoming polls
  • Boycott supporters have been holding meetings to convince or pressure candidates not to run and voters to abstain

EIN QINIYA, Golan Heights: 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.”


‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019
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‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

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Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 

 

Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.


'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.