The snow storm that hit Palestine was at its peak on 17 December 2013, but that did not prevent dozens of Palestinian youth from climbing up Carmel Mountain to protest in support of imprisoned Druze conscientious objectors.
While most Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship are exempt from serving in the Israeli occupation army, compulsory military service has been imposed on young Palestinian Druze men since 1956 following an agreement between a few un-elected leaders of the minority Druze community and the Zionist State.
The week leading up to the December action was exceptional, as four young Druze publicly announced their refusal to enlist in the Israeli army. Among them were musician Omar Saad, Mahmoud Saad, Seif Abu Seif, and Nizar Abu Hammoud, who were simultaneously imprisoned alongside other Druze refusers who chose to remain anonymous. Detained in Atlit military prison south of occupied Haifa, the refusers managed to hear the chants of the demonstrators who stood for hours in the freezing cold.
"Their presence and support give me strength and protection. I felt that I was not alone," said 18-year-old Seif Abu Seif from the Galilee town of Shafa'Amr. At the time of the protest, Abu Seif was held in solitary confinement as punishment for refusing to cut his hair for religious reasons. He is not the first member of his family to be imprisoned for refusing to participate in the oppression of his own people – both his father and brother also spent time in jail.
The December 17 protest, like a plethora of other actions aimed at providing legal and moral support for conscientious objectors and their families, was organised by a group against military service that is made up by Palestinians from all sects, not just Druze. The group started meeting in 2010, and after over three years of discussing and organising, finally decided to start a new, public initiative to oppose compulsory military conscription and support the objectors. The initiative is called "Refuse and your people shall protect you!"
"The title choice was inspired by the words of Seif Abu Seif, who is a co-organiser of the initiative. He felt that our support gave him protection, and indeed we want Druze youth to know that we will stick by their side if they choose to refuse," said political activist and media coordinator for the campaign, Maisan Hamdan. "While we cannot force anyone to make his refusal public, we want to encourage them to do so but regardless of their choice to go public or not, we will stand with them all the way." Hamdan continued.
"Some also might refuse not for political reasons, but rather out of more practical motives, like they don't want to waste three years of their lives in the army. We obviously prefer that youngsters refuse out of national and political motives, but we will not exclude others who refuse for different reasons. We will support them and make them feel part of this movement and this in turn will help make them more politically aware," she said.
Several initiatives have sprung up since 1956 to demand an end to compulsory conscription such as the Free Druze Movement, founded in 1958, and the Druze Initiative Committee, established by the Israeli Communist Party in 1972. However, what distinguishes the new campaign "Orfod" (Arabic for refuse) from previous groups and initiatives is that it is an inclusive campaign that boasts participants from all sects, as well as from both inside the Green Line (present-day Israel) and the West Bank.
"As a movement we have two main goals: First, we want to encourage young Druze, including those who do not come from politicised families, to refuse service and providing those who do refuse with moral and legal support. We also try to provide scholarships for refusers to continue their studies as an alternative for the financial incentives that the army gives them," said Hamdan.
"Our second goal is to re-unite the Palestinian people and bridge gaps between us and Palestinians from the West Bank. For many in the West Bank, the first thing that comes to mind when you say 'Druze' is that aggressive soldier who stands at the checkpoint to curtail their movement. We want to make clear there are many Druze who actually refuse to do this and consider themselves Palestinians."
A preparation meeting to discuss the launch of "Orfod" was held in Ramallah and attended by activists from across the Occupied West Bank. During the second prison term of Omar Saad, solidarity protests with him were held both in Ramallah and in the Eastern part of occupied Jerusalem.
On 13 March, a documentary about Palestinian-Druze lawyer Yamen Zidan was screened in the African Community centre in Jerusalem. The film tells the story of Zidan, a Druze who turned from a prison guard into a lawyer for political prisoners after re-discovering his identity. The film-screening and discussion was attended by youth from Jerusalem.
These are indications of a change of attitude happening, and that the stereotypes about the Druze community are being challenged. The campaign "Orfod" will be officially launched on Friday 21 March, with a large protest in front of Atlit prison – but there are already many positives to be drawn from it. Not only does it challenge the Zionist attempts to fragment Palestinians along sectarian lines and strip the Druze youth of their Palestinian identity, it also promises to be a popular non-elitist movement that has the potential to grow and expand.
Budour Hassan is Palestinian blogger based in occupied Jerusalem.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.