Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Who is Israel's jailed Druze politician Saʿid Naffaʿ?

Former Druze Knesset member Saʿid Naffaʿ began his one year long prison term on Sunday (see here for a video of the rally in front of the prison). He was senteced for illigally visiting Syria in 2007 along with 282 Druze clerics and meeting the deputy head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) - a terrorist group according (not only) to Israeli law.

in Syria 2007

The details of the affair, which has led to the conviction of Naffaʿ and to none of the 282 clerics, are well known but this is also an opportunity to shine some light on his career and the political tendencies inside the Israeli-Druze community he represents. Naffaʿ is the most profiled politician the non-Zionist Druze faction has produced so far. 

Saʿid Naffaʿ

Saʿid Naffaʿ was born in the all Druze Upper Galileein village of Bait Jann in 1953. Mandatory conscription was introduced for all male Druze except the religious ʿuqqal in 1956 and a year later the Druze became recognized as a distinct sect separate from Sunni Islam. His relative Muhammad Naffaʿ, until recently secretary general of the Israeli Communist Party, was one of the first conscientious objectors and tried to rally like minded Druze (another early objector was Samih al-Qasim). Saʿid Naffaʿ joined the Communist Party at a young age in the 1960's, when the party was the primarily opportunity for Arabs in Israel to voice political opposition. With the Six Day War Arab nationalism was on the rise - also inside Israel's Druze community. While Naffaʿ was jailed for refusing conscription in 1972, the Druze Initiative Council (DIC) was founded on initiative of religious leader sheikh Farhud Farhud. Even though the committee had a strong religious component, it's members were mainly members of the Communist Party. Saʿid Naffaʿ joined the DIC after his release and became one of its leading activists.

In 1977 the DIC joined the newly established HADASH gathering, which is until today heavily dominated by the Communist Party. Later, in the 1980's, Naffaʿ became involved in Bait Jann's communal politics, serving as mayor during the 1990's. Bait Jann, the Druze village with the highest percentage of confiscated land in Israel, was a receptive ground for agitation against the status quo.

During the 1990s, Naffaʿ, like other prominent Druze dissidents e.g. writer Salman Natur, left the Communist Party and the DIC, citing interference by the party in the committee's tasks as a main reason. Naffaʿ founded the Liberal Arab Druze Assembly in 2001, which is competing with the DIC for the same followers. When I visited some veteran Druze activists in 2011, I was assured, that Naffaʿ had more followers than the DIC. Naffaʿ joined the secular Arab nationalist BALAD party led by Christian intellectual ʿAzmi Bishara in 1999 and helped the party to gain a foothold in the Druze community. The relative popularity of Naffaʿ and Bishara among the Druze was partly founded on their ability to organize travel permissions to Syria (Bishara had a good relationship with the Barak government then). The Times of Israel estimates the number of permissions organized by Naffaʿ and Bishara at 10.000, among them 1.000 Druze. Even though these numbers seem way too high to me, there can be little doubt that many Arab Israeli citizens had visited Syria since the year 2000. Even sheikh Muwaffaq Tarif, the head of Israel's Druze religious council, was reportedly planning a trip to Syria shortly before the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011. The exchange between the Druze in Israel and their coreligionists in Syria and Lebanon was a task Naffaʿ tried to stimulate also with the Druze Liaison Council, an organization founded by Druze clerics and himself in 2003.

When in 2007 Bishara left Israel in the light of being accused of spying for Hizballah (although never officially found guilty), it was Naffaʿ who replaced him in the Knesset. He was reelected in 2009 and stayed in the Knesset until the end of the period in 2013. However, in 2010 his political career suffered a serious setback after being thrown out of BALAD. The reason was a meeting with Lebanese Druze leader Walid Junblat, of which he had not informed the party.

More recently he had voiced his support for Bashar al-Assad (like his relative Muhammad Naffaʿ) and also appeared at HADASH-rallies. I don't know if he was fully admitted back into HADASH but current chairman Ayman ʿUda was one of several Arab politicians who accomied him to prison. However, with Naffaʿ serving his term in prison and ʿAbdallah Maʿruf representing the non-Zionist Druze as a Knesset member of the Joint List, Israel's most prominent Druze dissident politician has an uncertain political future.

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