Golan Heights Druze vote for first time – but where does their loyalty lie?

Druze religious leaders threaten prohibition as hundreds demonstrate against municipal elections, allowed for the first time since Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The four Druze villages of Majdal Shams, Bukata, Masada, and Ein Qinya on the Golan Heights were to be the site of a historical event Tuesday, as local elections are being held there for the first time in over 50 years.

Although Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, 24 years after capturing it from Syria in the Six Day War, the majority of the residents in the Druze villages on the Golan identify as Syrian.

Protests have roiled Majdal Shams, the largest of the towns, for months. News agency Reuters reported demonstrators standing in front of ballot stations Tuesday chanting, “The Golan’s identity is Arab and Syrian.”

Hebrew media reports police have been called in to maintain order as hundreds protest in Majdal Shams. In Bukata and Masada, the vote was cancelled when all candidates dropped out.

Most Golan Druze are not Israeli citizens, but permanent residents. Their town leaders were appointed by Israel. Last year, some villagers appealed to the Supreme Court for the right to hold elections. Their request was granted.

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Interior Minister Aryeh Deri hailed the ruling, saying it “strengthens Israel’s democracy.” However, mayors and regional council heads must still be Israeli citizens according to state law, leaving only 9,000 of 26,000 residents as potential candidates

Religious elders such as Sheikh Khamis Khanjar, were unmoved by Israel’s willingness to give his community greater say in local town leadership.

“Candidates and those who come to vote will have a religious and social prohibition put upon them,” he told Reuters. “What bigger punishment is there than this?”

Others blamed Israel for the discord. “For more than 50 years Israel has been trying to sow disputes by divide and rule and it is happy at the differences that are surfacing,” Moenis Abdullah said in the Reuters report.

However, there were a few brave souls who voted, although they wouldn’t give their names to reporters.

“It’s my right to vote. I’m free to choose the right person,” said one man after emerging from the booth.