The Druze: caught in Middle East crossfire

Often overlooked in mainstream media, the Druze now stand at the intersection of geopolitical tensions.

The Druze are an ethnoreligious minority in the Middle East, characterised by their unique faith, Druzeism, which combines elements from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, as well as Greek philosophy, Hinduism, and Gnosticism. Their religion is syncretic, monotheistic, and can be considered Abrahamic.

Their history of repression and marginalisation in the Middle East adds a layer of complexity to their role in the current geopolitical escalation. Understanding the Druze minority's background, location, and the historical injustices they've faced is essential to deciphering how their allegiances may shape the unfolding events in this volatile region.

Scattered across the Levant region of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, the Druze minority faces a fragile existence. Ravaged by the Syrian Civil War, ostracised in some areas for their unique faith, and caught in the crossfire of regional conflicts, they demonstrate resilience despite repression, displacement, land disputes, and marginalisation.

Targets

Their faith, known as Druzism, is a secretive and esoteric offshoot of Islam that emerged in the 11th century. The Druze community places a strong emphasis on unity and maintains a closed religious and social structure. Followers of Druzism believe in the oneness of God, reincarnation, and the spiritual significance of certain historical figures. However, the intricacies of their beliefs are closely guarded, with access to religious texts restricted to a select few within the community.

Despite their relatively small numbers, just over 1 million, the Druze have played significant roles in the political and military landscapes of the countries they inhabit. This distinctive position has often subjected them to periods of repression and discrimination, as their unique faith and tight-knit communities challenge the norms of the surrounding majority populations.

A small community of Druze, about 1-2 percent of the total, resides in Jordan, mainly in the Zarqa and Karak governorates. Historically, the largest Druze population, estimated at 40-50 percent of the total, resides in Jabal al-Druze in southwest Syria and smaller communities around Damascus.

The Syrian Civil War has been devastating for the Druze community. Government forces and rebel groups have both committed abuses against Druze villages, leading to displacement, casualties, and damage to cultural heritage. ISIS attacks also targeted Druze communities in 2015. Consequently, the Druze population of Syria is declining.

Around 30-40 percent of the Druze live in Lebanon, concentrated in the Shuf Mountains, Matn District, and around Mount Lebanon. They generally maintain political influence and enjoy relative stability compared to Druze in other countries. While facing less direct violence, Lebanese Druze have experienced economic hardship and marginalisation due to the overall political and economic crisis in the country.

Additionally, some Druze leaders express concerns about the increased influence of Hezbollah, a Shi'a group, on Lebanese politics. Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist group and frequently launches attacks against Israel.

In Lebanon, as in Syria, Druze suffer from the consequences of the Iran-Saudi rivalry and the Sunni-Shiite religious divide which destabilises the region. Iran backs Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as militias in Syria and Yemen, while Saudi Arabia and the US back the other side. The Druze find themselves targets of both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims in both Syria and Lebanon.

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Approximately 6-7 percent of the Druze population lives in Israel, primarily in the Galilee region and the Golan Heights. They are considered Israeli citizens and serve in the military, though some face challenges regarding land ownership and recognition of their unique religious identity. Druze citizens particularly face challenges regarding land ownership in the Golan Heights, where Israeli settlements have raised concerns about land dispossession.

Allies

The Druze community has been a significant Arab ally of Israel, actively communicating and supporting Israel's case in the Arab world. Some members work as civilian employees of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), while others have opened their homes to evacuees from the recent attacks. Historically, a substantial percentage of Druze have volunteered to serve in the IDF, fighting alongside Jews.

According to Jonathan Bluestein, an Israeli citizen and former master sergeant in the police department, "In Israel, 90 percent of them are fiercely loyal to the state of Israel. They serve in the Israel Defense Force (IDF), and we call them brothers."

Many Druze reach senior army positions, and hundreds have sacrificed their lives for the state. In recent conflicts, Druze soldiers like Alim Abdallah lost their lives when terrorists crossed the Israel-Lebanon border, and Salman Habaka was killed after saving many lives during the October 7 Hamas attack in Kibbutz Be’eri.

In the event of a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, the Druze community assumes a distinctive role, given that Hezbollah has specifically targeted them. Approximately 60 percent of armed factions in Suwayda province, Syria, align themselves with Hezbollah, actively seeking to expand local partnerships.

Hezbollah has recruited a Bedouin militia and is fostering organised crime activities in the province to deliberately instigate instability. Additionally, Hezbollah utilises its connections in the Golan Heights to deepen divisions between the Druze communities in that area. This effort coincides with heightened tensions, as Hezbollah clashes with Israeli forces at the Lebanese-Israeli border.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah fosters discord among traditional allies and seeks to dismantle the largest Druze political bloc, actively fueling intra-Druze tensions that sometimes result in casualties. By exploiting political alliances within the Lebanese Druze establishment, Hezbollah isolates and weakens critics of both itself and the Syrian regime.

Having endured centuries of repression and suffering inflicted by both Shi’a and Sunni forces, and confronted with divisive tactics orchestrated by Iran-backed Hezbollah, the Druze now find themselves caught in the crossfire of regional conflicts.


Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: Israel Defense Forces - Druze "Herev" Battalion Training, Wikimedia Commons.


 

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