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The Druze Dilemma: Which Way to Turn?

An Israeli offer of at least partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights is on the table - but some Druze fear Syrian control will undermine prosperity

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AS Israeli and Syrian peace negotiators sit down in Washington this week to discuss Israel's first-ever concrete offer to withdraw from parts of the Golan Heights, no one is more immediately concerned than the Druze villagers whose homes and apple orchards lie along the border.

And after more than 25 years of Israeli occupation, they are torn over what to think about the prospect of being returned to Syrian sovereignty. A few prominent figures, including the Israeli-appointed mayors of the four Druze villages on the heights, are outspoken in their preference for remaining under Israeli rule - an attitude unthinkable in any of the other Israeli-occupied territories currently under negotiation in the Middle East peace talks.

Another small group makes no bones about wanting to see the Golan Heights revert to Syrian rule, as they say illegally occupied Arab land naturally should.

But most of the 16,000 villagers, guardedly keeping their own counsel, are maintaining the age-old Druze tradition of self-protective secrecy, uncertain which way their future will be decided.

"I can tell you I am pro-Israeli or pro-Syrian, but you won't know what I really think," says Hani Zahawi, a local trade union official. "We always keep things to ourselves, because we are a small people."

The Druze inhabitants of the Golan Heights, who have lived here for over four centuries, stayed in their villages when the other 125,000 Syrian residents fled during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, in which Israel occupied the strategic plateau.

They belong to a distinct Arab ethnic group, spread over mountainous regions of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, whose ancestors broke away from orthodox Islam nearly a thousand years ago. Still today, they keep the tenets of their faith a closely guarded secret.

"The Druze are great survivors in history," says Shmuel Shamai, an Israeli expert on the Druze at the Golan Research Institute. "They can change [outward] identity if need be because their soul is Druze, and a lot of deception goes on, especially in geopolitical situations where they don't know which side they belong to.

"Before all else," he adds, "they are pro-Druze." This characteristic caginess is evident from the way in which villagers who only a few weeks ago were willing to say openly they hoped Israel would retain the Golan Heights are now tight-lipped.

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