40 years since establishment of Druze battalion

Soldiers marching through the village of Sajur. Photo: Zev Marmorstein

The Herev (Sword) Battalion recently celebrated 40 years of defending Israel’s northern border, with a day full of festivities

Date: 06/04/2013, 3:20 PM     Author: IDF (Zahal) Website

The IDF (Zahal)’s Herev (Sword) Battalion – composed entirely of Druze soldiers – celebrated forty years since its establishment with a day-long celebration last Thursday (May 30).

The soldiers of “the first arrow on the Lebanese border,” as they refer to the Herev Battalion, earned this title during the Second Lebanon War – during which they were the first to enter and the last to leave. The battalion is like a large family, its soldiers coming from tightly knit communities – many of them walking in the footsteps of relatives who guarded the Lebanese before them. These soldiers frequently speak to each other in Arabic, but all military matters are conducted in Hebrew.

40 years since establishment of Druze battalion

Children, volunteers and soldiers participating in the march. Photo: Zev Marmorstein

The celebration began with a two-hour march through the network of Druze villages in the Galilee. The soldiers then sat down for a lecture with Sheikh Jihad Kablan, son of one of the first Israeli Druze military leaders.

Sheikh Kablan recalled stories his father had told him of the history of cooperation between Israel’s Druze and Jewish populations. By the time of Israel’s War of Independence, Sheikh Kablan related, his father “personally went from village to village, recruiting the first Druze to fight in the IDF (Zahal).” 

In the middle of that war, Sheikh Kablan noted, the IDF (Zahal)’s Druze soldiers joined its special unit for minority soldiers – comprised also of Bedouins, Circassians and Christian and Muslim Arabs. This unit was responsible for protecting southern Israel from 1948 until 1974.

After the lecture, the soldiers traveled up north to the green, mountainous village of Sajur, where a final march awaited them.

40 years since establishment of Druze battalion

Soldiers and a civilian performing a traditional Dabke dance. Photo: Zev Marmorstein

The atmosphere in Sajur was like a family barbeque of nearly a thousand people. Before the march, some of the soldiers joined hands for a traditional Dabke dance, and then off they went – accompanied by a marching band, young scouts, and a mixed group of youth and parents. Along the way, families stood outside their homes cheering on the marchers. Many of these families had prepared tables with abundant food and drinks in their honor.

 

40 years since establishment of Druze battalion

     

Herev soldiers enjoying the refreshments provided by supportive families. Photo: Zev Marmorstein

The march ended at a large outdoor auditorium, where soldiers and civilians celebrated together. Teenagers performed Druze dances in traditional garb, sang a song written by the battalion’s soldiers and recited Hebrew poetry. In between the performances, short videos capturing the history of the Druze in the IDF (Zahal) were shown.

Commander of the Galilee Formation Brig. Gen. Herzi Halevi capped the celebration by noting the Herev Battalion’s important role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. “They went, carried out missions and succeeded,” he said. “We hope for a quiet border, but we continue to prepare.”

A story of integration and defense

In 1960, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, writing in his personal diary, lamented that Israel’s Druze population felt marginalized, adding that “we must strongly uproot every discrimination. We must give to each Druze the chance to progress like Jews.”

Fourteen years later, the Druze 299th Battalion was born and tasked with guarding the Lebanese border. In 1986, this unit was renamed the “Herev Battalion.”

As Israel’s first prime minister had hoped, the establishment of a special Druze unit succeeded in battling a feeling of discrimination. The Herev Battalion’s first commander, Col. (res.) Ahil Salakh, recalled that “when the battalion was established, we finally began to feel a part of the IDF (Zahal), and not something on the side.”

Col. (res.) Salakh told the IDF (Zahal) Website of the challenges the Druze battalion had initially faced. “It was difficult to gather soldiers,” he recalled. “The hardest thing, though, was the training of the officers. They were used to speaking Arabic and we needed them to speak Hebrew.” Later, he stated, language classes initiated by the IDF (Zahal) raised their level of Hebrew.

The current Herev commander, Lt. Col. Shadi Abu Faras, discussed the unit’s present duties and challenges. “The responsibility of the battalion is daily security on the border, but our main objective is to prepare for war,” he stated.

Explaining the high enlistment rate among Israel’s Druze population, he said, “It’s an opportunity to serve their country, and it gives them a chance to join the larger Israeli society. They are highly motivated and many wish to become commanders.”

One of these motivated soldiers is Sgt. Wagdi Kays, who described the significance of the celebration. “I’ve been in the Herev Battalion for two and a half years. This event is something great. All of the representatives of the battalion, present and past, are here, and it’s moving to hear from them,” he told the IDF (Zahal) Website.