- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004


JERUSALEM — Israel’s Supreme Court this week authorized members of the country’s Druze religious community for the first time to make a pilgrimage to Syria, which is officially at war with the Jewish state, judicial sources said.

The judges ruled Monday that the group would be allowed to remain on Syrian soil for a maximum of 72 hours.

The success of their trip will be studied before the court makes a definitive ruling on any future visits.

The names of all the Druze who want to travel to Syria will have to be submitted for the approval of Israeli security services. They will then be transmitted by the International Committee of the Red Cross to authorities in Damascus, Syria.

The judges also ruled that the Druze who travel to Syria must not try and visit Lebanon, which also has a sizable Druze minority but is also still technically at war with Israel.

Druze who are reservists in the Israeli army or parents of army officers will not be allowed to go to Syria, the judicial sources said.

It will be the first time since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 that any of its citizens have been allowed to travel to Syria.

The Druze, whose religion grew out of a schism with Islam dating from the 11th century, have nearly a million adherents worldwide, mostly in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan.

About 80,000 Druze live in Israel and are, with the Bedouins, the only Arabs serving in the Israeli army. Some 18,000 Druze also live in the Golan Heights, which were captured from Syria by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed 14 years later. All attempts to reach a peace agreement between the two countries have foundered over the return of the strategic plateau.

The distrust that still exists between Israel and Syria was further illustrated Monday when Israel’s head of military intelligence declared that Syrian President Bashar Assad regards terrorism as a “strategic weapon” in his battle against the Jewish state.

The group, which went to court on Monday, is likely to be allowed to travel to Syria via the Quneitra area in the Golan Heights.

The Israeli government had originally offered to allow them to travel via Quneitra, but for a maximum of 48 hours — a condition the applicants argued was totally impractical.

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