Golan Heights: most Druze boycott elections; more settlers coming

Summary: most of the Druze on the Golan boycotted the 30 October municipal elections. Separately, Israel has announced plans to increase the number of settlers in the territory. 

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for the posting below. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

It is hard to imagine two more different areas in the Middle East than the empty, windswept Golan Heights and the historical urban landscape of East Jerusalem. But dilemma for the indigenous inhabitants of both occupied and annexed areas is similar: whether to vote in the hope of securing improvements in their daily lives or to boycott on a point of principle. (We looked at the elections in East Jerusalem in our post of 2 November, “Jerusalem’s municipal elections: Palestinian participation”.)

Image result for golan heights map

The Golan Heights (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Like East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights were captured by Israel in June 1967, causing 130,000 Syrians to leave the territory for other parts of Syria. Those who remained were mostly members of the Druze community. (The Druze are Arabs who follow an esoteric religion which is historically an offshoot of Islam but is normally not regarded as an Islamic sect: see our post of 6 August: “Israel: the Druze voice”.) In 1981, the Knesset passed a law applying Israeli government and laws to the Golan (in effect, annexing the territory), a move rejected unanimously by the UN Security Council in Resolution 497.

According to the Statistical Abstract of Israel (in Hebrew), there were just under 50,000 people living on the Golan at the end of last year. Al-Marsad, a civil society organisation, gives a slightly higher figure (51,000) for the same date and asserts that the number of settlers (26,000, in 34 settlements) had, at that time, just overtaken the number of Syrian residents 25,000).

The Druze in Israel have integrated relatively successfully into Israeli society (and certainly more so than other Arabic-speaking citizens of Israel, the great majority of whom are Muslims and many of whom now self-identify as Palestinians). For their part, most of the Druze on the Golan see themselves as Syrian. While Israel has given them the opportunity to apply for citizenship (and 90% of those who apply are successful), only 12% have so far become citizens (though the number of applications has increased in recent years). The rest remain, in the eyes of the Israeli authorities, “permanent residents”.

The municipal elections of 30 October represented the first time that the Druze on the Golan had been allowed to stand as candidates or vote in local elections in Israel (though only citizens could stand for mayoral office). This followed a legal challenge by some Druze who wanted the right to vote. (Israel had previously appointed local leaders.)

Like the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, the Golani Druze are far from united on the wisdom or otherwise of taking part in municipal elections. Druze community leaders urged them to abstain from voting on 30 October. One local leader, Sheikh Khamis Khanjar, declared that “Candidates and those who come to vote will have a religious and social prohibition put upon them …”. He added, “What bigger punishment is there than this?”

In Majdal Shams, the largest town on the Golan, there were demonstrations calling for a boycott of the vote. Israeli police cleared a way for those wanting to vote to do so and fired tear-gas to disperse the protesters, though no one was hurt or arrested.

As in East Jerusalem, nationalistic feelings and social pressure resulted in a very low turnout. In Majdal Shams, 350 votes were cast (the town has a population of 10,000) – 260 of them for Dulan Abu Salah, who was duly elected mayor. In the village of Ein Qiniye (population 2,000), Wahil Mughrabi was elected mayor with 21 votes against his rival’s two. In two other villages, there were no candidates and the elections were cancelled.

Israel’s plans to increase settler numbers

Unlike the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Golan Heights have not proved especially attractive to Israeli settlers. One reason is their lack of religious significance for Jews. Another is their remoteness: while many settlements (including the largest) on the West Bank are within commuting distance from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and other centres of economic activity, those on the Golan are not.

Nothing daunted, the Israeli government has announced plans to increase the number of settlers on the Golan to 100,000 within a decade. The rationale is security: more Jews on the Golan will (say Israeli ministers) make it easier to defend Israel against possible attacks from Syria. Meanwhile, Israeli politicians (including Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party) have called for international recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. At a rally in the Knesset in June, Lapid expressed the view that there was a greater willingness than before on the part of the US Administration to recognise Israel’s sovereignty. In August, however, John Bolton (President Trump’s National Security Adviser), responded to a question on the subject by saying, “I’ve heard the idea being suggested but there’s no discussion of it, no decision within the US government”.

Bolton’s statement did not discourage Prime Minister Netanyahu from declaring, a couple of months later, that “Israel’s presence there [on the Golan] is a fact that the international community must recognize.” He added, “As long as it is dependent on me, the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli sovereignty. Otherwise, we will get Iran and Hezbollah on the banks of the Kinneret [Lake Tiberias].”

Given the current state of Syria, Israel is not going to come under international pressure in the near future to leave the Golan Heights. However, the territory remains Syrian under international law and there is nothing to be gained by any other country in recognising it as Israeli. It has been the subject of Israeli-Syrian negotiations in the past (including during two previous Netanyahu premierships) and, if Israel wants a permanent peace agreement with Syria at some point in the future, will have to be so again.

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