Druze Israelis remain on Lebanon border: ‘We’ll die defending our land if we have to’

Not long after the war began, the head of Israel’s Druze community, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, said the Druze people would not leave their homes in northern Israel but would stay and prepare to defend themselves in any way

HURFEISH, Israel – There was a constant flow of traffic on Route 89, the central road running through the Druze village of Hurfeish in northern Israel, and all the tables inside Sambousak HaErez, one of the most popular local eateries, were full of diners on a sunny weekday lunch hour last week.

Hurfeish’s northernmost point is less than a mile from Israel’s border with Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Islamist Shiite group Hezbollah has been firing mortars, rockets and killer drones into Israel almost daily since Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack, yet in this village, unlike other communities nearby, there were few signs of the shadow of this war. It was a day like any other.

Children disembarked from a school bus outside Sambousak HaErez, lugging backpacks as they headed home. A muscle-bound father in a shirt with the name of his IDF unit sat with his two young children at one table, four men in their 20s and 30s smoked at another table outside; and two middle-aged men held a meeting with a laptop between them. Iyad (who did not want to give his last name) pushed pitas into a traditional Druze taboon oven and then scooped labneh yogurt spread, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar spice mix, into bowls.

The lively scene in Hurfeish sharply contrasted with every other kibbutz and moshav in the area, all of which were evacuated in the chaotic days following Oct. 7 and remain empty seven months later. Members of Israel’s Druze community decided to remain in their homes.

The Druze — a monotheistic religion that incorporates elements of all Abrahamic religions and several other philosophies — live in villages dotting northern Israel, from the Mediterranean coast across the Galilee Valley and up to the Golan Heights, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. They have had a presence in the region for a thousand years, and related communities are also found in Lebanon, Syria and parts of Jordan. 

Iyad bakes Druze pita in the tamboon at the Sambousak HaErez restaurant, Hurfeish, Israel

According to their religious dictates, Druze swear allegiance to the country in which they reside. While they make up just 1.5% of Israel’s total population, an overwhelming 83% of Druze men enlist in the army. Druze account for roughly 5% of the IDF’s soldiers, as well as 20% of its prison guards and 6.5% of its police officers.

In Hurfeish, about 10% of the residents have been on IDF reserve duty since the war started, in addition to the large numbers of career officers who serve permanently in the IDF, the Israeli Police, the Internal Intelligence Agency and other security branches. 

“Our religion says we have to defend our land,” Osama, 31, one of the men smoking outside, said. “Parents with children in the army can’t sleep, can’t eat. My parents and grandparents watch the news all day; there’s bad energy in the home.”

“We see [missiles] over our heads, but none have fallen in the village,” he added, showing a photo on his phone of his cousin’s factory abutting Hurfeish, destroyed by an anti-tank missile launched from Lebanon.

Even on that peaceful May afternoon, as diners ate their savory pastries and pitas, news outlets and the Red Alert app flashed the names of a nearby kibbutz and one village after another within range of Hezbollah’s anti-tank missile and rocket fire.

In the not-so-far distance there was a sudden muffled boom. 

“That’s an exit,” Osama said, meaning Israel was shooting down Hezbollah’s projectiles. 

In the Second Lebanon War in 2006, over 100 missiles fell in Hurfeish. Residents of the village, which abuts Mount Addir, a natural barrier between Hurfeish and Hezbollah’s anti-tank missiles, also reported hearing the sounds of digging, Osama recounted, pointing out that the IDF blew up several cross-border tunnels dug by Hezbollah in 2019. 

Now, Osama said, “the situation isn’t so dangerous.” 

But if it gets worse, “women, children and the elderly will evacuate,” he said.

“In war, no one wins,” Osama mused. “One side just loses more than the other. Israel doesn’t want war. But you can’t live in fear all the time… Life is mostly normal.” 

But there are some signs of war in Hurfeish, which in peace times is heavily reliant on tourists. For the past seven months, outsiders have mostly stayed away. 

“On Saturdays, there used to be a line out the door and a wait for over an hour,” Osama said of life pre-Oct. 7. 

Iyad, busy baking pitas and manning the cash register, confirmed that before the war there had been long lines on the weekends. Now, he said, “people are traumatized.”

“When it’s quiet, we have customers, but if there’s a siren, no one comes here for two or three days,” he said. 

Still, Iyad said: “We lived through 2006, and we’ll get through this too.”

“The money will come back,” Osama concurred. “But there were already two soldiers from our village who were killed.” 

Up the hill from the sambousak joint, through Hurfeish’s labyrinthine roads, is Shakib Shanan’s home. Shanan served two brief stints as a member of Knesset for the Labor party and in then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s breakaway party. 

Shakib Shanan in the “Kamil Shanan Center for Values,” memorializing his son Kamil

He lives in an old stone house with looming archways, to which new, modern wings were added. In one of the oldest sections in the house is the “Kamil Shanan Center for Values,” in memory of his son, Kamil, a police officer shot by a Palestinian terrorist while on duty on the Temple Mount in 2017. The walls are covered with photographs of Kamil, and a glass cabinet displays his uniform, badge and other gear, as well as awards he received. Shanan gives lectures on patriotism and Druze contributions to Israel to Jewish groups of soldiers and police officers.

“We believe that Israel is the best place in the world today to be Druze,” he said, contrasting his community’s situation to their coreligionists in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

In addition, Shanan said, “Israel is also the best place in the world to be a Jew. Not even America is the best place.”

“We have a partnership of coexistence,” he continued. “It is not just an alliance of blood, as some say. Israel is my country. It is the country of my son of blessed memory, and of my living son and of my parents and grandchildren.”

On Oct. 7, Shanan said, initially there was “panic” in Hurfeish, and a concern that Hezbollah would cross the border.

“I know people who slept with their gun under their pillow, and even knives in case something happened,” he said.

When the IDF’s Home Front Command began evacuating towns on the border with Lebanon, Shanan recounted, “the village elders said we absolutely will not leave our homes. We will stay and fight if we need to… We will defend our land, and if necessary, we will die for it.”

“We didn’t consider leaving,” he added. “We won’t leave; let’s be real.”

The village of Hurfeish has existed for nearly a millennium, and has been Druze for centuries. Shanan said he can name ancestors who lived in the village going back eight generations.

“It’s not just a saying that we are willing to die for our land,” the former politician said. “I say this as a bereaved father who lost his son seven years ago on the Temple Mount.”

Not long after the war began, the head of Israel’s Druze community, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, said the Druze people would not leave their homes in northern Israel but would stay and prepare to defend themselves in any way.

A statement from the Sheikh’s office this week emphasized to JI that staying put was “ important to transmit strength towards the enemies that seek to harm us.”

In Hurfeish, the statement added, residents have continued to live and maintain their usual routine, despite the difficult security situation and its impact on the standard of living. It also highlighted that two young men from the town had been killed in the seven-month-old war.

Residents of Hurfeish and other Druze towns have increased their support for the IDF soldiers now stationed in the north and have opened their hearts and homes to them, the statement said.

The IDF provided the local security team with additional weapons, as well as IDF soldiers who are based in the village to protect the residents.

“We are surrounded” by IDF soldiers, Shanan said. “They shoot [artillery] from here.” 

The children of Hurfeish know how to differentiate between the sound of a missile landing – an attack by Hezbollah – and the IDF’s artillery launching.

Shanan pointed out that missiles have fallen on Mount Meron, five kilometers (three miles) from Hurfeish, and the adjacent villages of Elkosh, Netoa and Biranit; Sasa, the kibbutz after Hurfeish on Route 89 “is almost entirely destroyed,” he said.

“In our village, up until now” – Shanan knocked on his coffee table – “tfu tfu.” 

Most homes in Hurfeish don’t have safe rooms, because they were built before the 1990s, when Israeli law was changed to require all homes and apartments to have a reinforced safe room to protect from rockets. Each neighborhood has a bomb shelter.

Banners honoring fallen soldiers from Hurfeish

When an air raid siren goes off, Shanan said, he sits in Kamil’s memorial room, because “it was built before the establishment of the state – look how thick the walls are.” 

Shanan seemed tired of cliches about the Druze and emphasized their normalcy.

“We’re not the heroes of Masada; we’re normal people and fear is part of our feelings. We were afraid for our children, ourselves, our wives, brothers, sisters, neighbors,” he said. “And there were arguments in the homes between those who agreed with the decision [not to evacuate] and those who accepted it, but didn’t feel comfortable.”

“Women were more likely to want to leave. I heard more than one say, ‘I am not interested in being raped like the women by the Gaza border,'” Shanan added.

And they have regular politics: “We didn’t evacuate, we don’t cost the government anything… But we petitioned the High Court that those who were harmed economically should receive damages. Recently the government started paying; it has more or less worked out.”

Seven months later, Shanan said he believes the decision to stay in Hurfeish was “very right.” 

“Our schools, our businesses, workplaces were all left open. We saw what happened to those who left; we are in contact with our neighbors in the kibbutzim and the moshavim,” he said. “Everyone left except for the security teams. My personal friend [former cabinet minister] Shalom Simhon goes up to Even Menachem to take care of his chicken coop, with his legs shaking… Those who evacuated are suffering… It’s not easy to live in a small hotel room with no kitchen, no privacy, together with your children.” 

“Evacuation may have saved lives, but the evacuation was destructive,” Shanan said.

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