The situation of Druze conscientious objectors does not receive much attention - neither from the media, nor from the peace movement inside Israel, nor from abroad.
The Druze form a minority within the Arab population of Israel. When Israel introduced military service in 1949, it was supposed to be compulsory for all Arab and Palestinian men.
However, it was never enforced on Palestinian citizens of Israel, partly due to the resistance by Christian and Muslim Palestinians. All Arab men get automatically exempted from military service. The situation of the Druze is different.
Due to manipulation the Israeli authorities managed to coerce 16 Druze leaders into signing an agreement about compulsory military service for the Druze in 1956. Since then, Druze men are eligible for military service -- Druze women, unlike Jewish Israeli women, are not.
The Druze Initiative Committee for Conscientious Objection was founded in 1972. It has four main objectives:
- an end to compulsory military service;
- opposition to confiscation of Druze land;
- no interference of the Israeli state in matters of nationality and religion;
- democracy and equal rights.
The fate of Druze conscientious objectors receives little public attention. There are dozens of Druze objectors in prison at any one time, and the Druze Initiative Committee publishes the names of those who agree to it. While most Druze who refuse to serve in the Israeli army do so for reasons of conscience, some refuse for economic or religious reasons.
The accumulated prison terms of Druze objectors of all kinds reach several thousand years. Jihad Sa'ad, secretary of the Druze Initiative Committee, said that about 40% of all Druze men refuse to serve -- he himself did his military service, but then refused his reserve duty later. One of his sons -- Rabia Jihad Sa'ad, is imprisoned at present, awaiting to be courtmartialed.
Several Druze conscientious objectors spent 2½ to 3 years in prison -- so far unthinkable for Jewish Israeli COs. One factor is that many Druze COs don't play by the rules: while Jewish Israeli COs present themselves at the Induction base on the day when they are supposed to enlist in the army, Druze COs often don't present themselves, or present themselves much later. This often leads to court martials for desertion, and much higher sentences. Issues of education and racism combine, and the outcome is much longer imprisonment for Druze conscientious objectors.
Salman Natour, a Druze writer, emphasises that the struggle of Druze conscientious objectors cannot be seen apart from the struggle to end compulsory military service in general. He sees two main aspects in this refusal: Political: the Druze belong to the Arab nation, and should be part of the struggle to change Israeli policy -- part of the struggle for equal rights within Israel.
Moral: the Israeli state cannot recruit Druze, because they are part of the Israeli Palestinian people and cannot be part of an army that fights against themselves. But conscientious objection is also a general statement against violence and war.
The Druze Initiative Committee cooperates with the Israeli objectors' organisations. As the Druze live within Israel -- and among Jews -- the support from Jewish groups is very important to them.
(This article is based on discussions at a meeting in Haifa, January 2003)