The Druze are a religio-political community who inhabit parts of Syria, Lebanon and Israel. They are set apart from other groups by their adherence to a separate religion. Although this religion has its roots in a form of Islam, the Druze are not Moslems. As we shall now see, in 1939 there was a serious plan to transfer the Druze living in Palestine to a Druze area in Syria.
Following a three day visit by Abba Hushi to Damascus in mid-March 1939, he wrote a report on his visit. The first section of this report was headed “Transfer of the Druze from Palestine to Jebel Druze”. Hushi reported that Sultan al-Atrash had assembled leaders of the Druze from Jebel Druze and as a result of an agreement with them suggested to the Zionists to purchase a dozen or so Druze villages in Palestine and transfer their Druze inhabitants to Jebel Druze. The Sultan was of the opinion that such a suggestion would be accepted by the Druze of Palestine and would be good for them. It would bring benefit to Jebel Druze, since the money they would receive from the Jews for their villages in Palestine would not only enable the Druze from Palestine to resettle but would also aid in the development of the Jebel Druze. As far as living-space was concerned, the area of the Jebel Druze would be sufficient for the 15,000 Druze who were then living in Palestine.
Hushi went on to say that the transfer would also bring great benefit to the Jews, both because of the quality of the land vacated by the transferees and because of its geographical and strategic location. “This transfer is likely ... to be an example and an important political fact in Palestine.”(1)
In a diary note written on 26 March, Dov Joseph reported that he had had a long meeting with Abba Hushi, in which the latter reported on his meeting with the Sultan. Joseph wrote, “He [Hushi or the Sultan?] believes it may be possible to work out an arrangement whereby a number of Druze villages would emigrate en masse to the Jebel Druze and turn over their holdings to Jews.”(2)
In early April, Ben-Gurion met with Hushi and the latter reported on his meeting with al-Atrash. Ben-Gurion concluded that from Hushi's report it was not clear whether “the transfer of Druze is practical and realistic, but we must not neglect this chance.” He suggested that Hushi together with Dov Hoz should have a further meeting with al-Atrash and other Druze. Ben-Gurion was himself not idle in this matter, since he asked the Statistical Department of the Jewish Agency to assemble material on the Druze villages, and this they did.(3)
Hushi and Hoz had a further meting with al-Atrash, but when the question of transfer was raised, al-Atrash gave the impression that he was hearing it for the first time and he expressed apprehensions.(4)
At the end of April, Weizmann wrote an enthusiastic letter to the American Zionist leader Solomon Goldman, stating that there was a possibility of acquiring a large tract of land from the Druze community in northern Palestine, and that the ten thousand Druze living on this land were prepared to migrate to the Jebel Druze in Syria.
With regard to this Druze migration, Weizmann wrote that it “would also create a significant precedent if 10,000 Arabs were .to emigrate peacefully of their own volition, which no doubt would be followed by others.” Earlier that year, President Roosevelt had proposed the transfer of large numbers of Arabs from Palestine to Iraq and suggested that the American Government would be prepared to loan one third of the required sum for such a transfer. Weizmann hoped that other Arabs would follow the example of the Druze in leaving Palestine and that “the President's suggestion of a large loan for the transmigration of Arabs from Palestine to Iraq would then become a realizable project.”(5)
This proposal was also taken seriously by the Zionist establishment, and in early May, Eliahu Epstein using official Jewish Agency notepaper, wrote a confidential letter to Eliezer Kaplan, stating that he was enclosing “a memorandum on the Druze of Palestine and a plan for their transfer from Palestine to Jebel Druze.”(6)
The second part of this memorandum was headed “Highly Confidential” and dealt with a plan for the transfer of the Druze from Palestine. In his introduction, Epstein pointed out that apart from the Jews there were four main parties involved in his plan, namely, the Druze of Palestine, the British authorities, the Druze of Jebel Druze, and the French authorities. Epstein went on to consider in turn the probable reactions of each of these four parties to the transfer proposal.(7)
Druze of Palestine: The Druze had lived in Palestine for three hundred years as a minority group. They had also lived in Jebel Druze, which at first they had considered to be a place of refuge, but as time progressed they saw in this region more and more a “national home”. Links between the Druze of Palestine and their brethren in Jebel Druze had strengthened, and at the same time the Arabs of Palestine, whose policy was to assimilate minorities, especially Arab-speaking minorities, attempted to have complete domination over the Druze of Palestine. Epstein held that although theoretically the Druze would be in favour of transfer, he felt that in practice an argument was likely to break out within the Druze community - some would favour transfer whilst others would oppose it. In order that the transfer plan be successful, Epstein wrote that a prior condition was strict secrecy. If any word would get out prematurely, the Mufti would ensure that an argument would break out within the Druze community, thus preventing any possibility of the plan's realisation.(8)
British authorities: Epstein considered that the British authorities would oppose the transfer of the Druze for the following reasons. During the previous hundred years, the Druze were one of the factors for the influence of the British in Greater Syria. Since the first world war, the Druze community in Palestine had served as a link with the Druze living outside of Palestine. It was therefore difficult to imagine that the British would be prepared to sever this link, especially in the light of the international situation of 1939. In addition the Druze were loyal non-Jewish residents of Palestine. A further reason for British opposition would be that such a transfer and subsequent purchase of their lands by the Jews, would result in an increase in the Jewish population of the Galilee.(9)
Druze of Jebel Druze: Epstein saw this group as the most interested party in the transfer plan. From both the economic and the political aspects, such a plan would be beneficial to them. He then went on at great length to prove his point, quoting statistical facts to substantiate his answer.(10)
French authorities: Jebel Druze is a region of Syria, and at that period, Syria was under a French Mandate. The attitude of the French authorities was thus of great relevance. Epstein considered that the question here was whether France, under the then prevailing international situation, would wish to strain even further her relations with the Syrian nationals by giving support to a plan so strongly opposed by the Syrians. A further reason for opposition was that by supporting this plan, the French would be openly making a connection, even indirectly, with the Zionists; this would arouse the ire of the French politicians for the Middle East, who were constantly worried about such a connection, especially in Syria. However, against all these objections, the French High Commissioner strongly supported strengthening the minorities in Syria. Epstein thus concluded that it was possible that this might tip the balance in favour of the transfer plan. In his opinion, nothing could be proposed before ascertaining the attitude of the French to such a plan.(11)
Epstein sent a copy of his memorandum to Zalman Lipschitz of the Palestine Land Development Company, and on the 25th of that month he answered saying that it seemed to him that Epstein's observations regarding the transfer of Druze from Palestine to Jebel Druze in general exhaust this issue in all its possible aspects.(12)
During this period Weizmann had a number of meetings with highly placed French officials in order to persuade them to accept the transfer plan. This we know from the diary of Moshe Shertok.
On 25 May, Shertok who was in London, spoke by telephone with Weizmann who was in Paris. Weizmann said that he was going to meet with the commanders of the French army and with members of the Quai d'Orsay, on the question of the Druze.(13) Three days later, Weizmann reported that he had met with Alexis Leger, Director-General of the French Foreign Office and discussed the Druze plan. According to Weizmann, Leger had been very sympathetic towards the plan and had promised to help.(14)
On 31 May, Weizmann met with the French Foreign Minister George Bonnet. Weizmann reported that Bonnet had described the plan for the Druze as “very logical”, and had promised to write to the French High Commissioner in Syria on this matter. He added that Andre Meyer, the French Jewish banker, and Leon Blum, leader of the French Socialist party, would continue to keep watch on this matter in Paris.(15)
Four days later, Weizmann reported that within a group of the French army there is “great support for the Druze plan. In addition, the attitude of the heads of the Quai d'Orsay is positive.” Shertok wrote that the conclusion from this was that if an order were to be given to the High Commissioner in Beirut, he would study with favour any practical plan brought before him. (It is not clear from this diary entry who in fact came to this conclusion.)
Shertok however was more pessimistic regarding the weight to be attached to the attitude of the French. In one of his telephone calls with Weizmann, Shertok told him “that the agreement of the French, in the event of it being obtained, does not solve the question at all. The question does not depend on the French, but on the Druze. The question is whether the Druze will agree to uproot themselves from their dwellings in Palestine and move to Syria.” He added that the Druze were waiting for an invitation from Sultan al-Atrash who could not approach them until he was sure of French agreement. However, Weizmann's work on this subject had paved the way.(16)
An important reason that the Druze in Jebel Druze were interested in this plan, was that it improved their position materially. However, in the summer of 1939, a further factor which would have led to the same objective was in the air. This took the form of a plan by the French to get a loan, under favourable conditions, in order to develop the Jebel Druze. In a letter written by Epstein to Hushi on 27 July, he referred to this development proposal and was apprehensive that this would upset the transfer plan, and added that with the improvement of the material position of the Druze on Jebel Druze, their desire for their brethren to be transferred from Palestine would be less. Epstein however considered that the material factor was not the only one involved in the transfer plan, but it had to be taken into account.(17)
The Druze leader Yussuf Al-'Ismi was in constant correspondence with Abba Hushi. On 5 July, he wrote that he had invited some Druze from Palestine to visit him and they had accepted his invitation. During their conversation, he had introduced the subject of their bad living conditions in Palestine and the thus desirability of “their transfer to settle amongst us” in Jebel Druze. “They were enthusiastic about this idea and asked us to continue with this work, and added that on their part they would return to Palestine and send us lists of names of those who wanted to move and how many dunams of land were in their possession.” When they had done this, they would pay another visit to Jebel Druze in order to begin to implement the transfer, after they would be promised that they would receive the full price for their properties and that they would receive it before they left Palestine. Al-'Ismi was confident that after such a start, success was guaranteed.(18)
Hushi had written to Al-'Ismi on 29 June (letter untraced), informing him that from the Zionist side there were no delays and everything was going straightforwardly.(19)
In early August, Al-'Ismi informed Hushi that he had after lengthy consultations, decided to write to the Druze in Palestine, whom he knew personally, inviting them to come to Jebel Druze. He had already written to over twenty people and some had already arrived. One of them had already returned to Palestine to bring a power of attorney from other villagers to sell their property and land. Al-'Ismi informed them that there is a very rich man who wanted to buy a whole village and that the first one to sell would get more money. He had also asked them not to reveal the plan to prevent failure. The Druze of Palestine were also promised facilities for settlement in Jebel Druze and a welcome by their brethren.(20)
At the beginning of August, Hushi reported to Weizmann on further meetings he had had with the leaders of the Druze in Jebel Druze and Palestine. He pointed out that the new political situation in Syria, namely the independence that the Jebel Druze had obtained, increased the possibilities for the transfer plan. This was because the Jebel Druze now needed an increase in population and money. Also at the same time the situation of the Druze in Palestine had got worse. A number of village-heads had been murdered by the gangs of Hag Amin el-Husseini. He went on to report that during the previous few days, a number of Sheiks had approached him “without any pressure from me” to sell 5000-8000 dunams of their land. The Druze had also managed to influence their religious leaders for the good of the transfer plan. Hushi was however worried whether the Zionist organisation had the required money and whether the British and French authorities would make problems. [How this letter continues is not known, since the remainder is missing!](21)
In mid-December of that year, Hushi returned from a short visit to Syria and Lebanon. In Damascus, he met with al-Atrash's secretary, who informed him that al-Atrash was very upset that there was no progress in the purchasing of Druze villages in Palestine. Al-Atrash had already discussed with King Abdullah of Transjordan “the transfer of the Druze of Palestine to Druze villages within the borders of Transjordan” and he hoped that Abdullah would agree to them being annexed to Jebel Druze.(22)
A few months earlier, the Second World War had begun. Also the Arab rebellion of 1936-39 came to an end and there was relative calm in Palestine. This probably explains why nothing further seems to be documented on this plan, and it thus seems to have fizzled out.
In commenting on this plan, the historian Ian Black wrote: “It is difficult to assess what proportion of the Palestinian Druze displayed real interest in, or actually participated in the move to the Jebel, or to what extent Yussuf al-'Ismi's work was approved or authorised by the Druze of Palestine or the Jebel. It is, however, beyond any doubt that he was working in collaboration with Sultan Pasha and that both sides were seriously interested in the project. On the Zionist side at least, the personal involvement of Weizmann as well as Shertok and other senior officials of the Jewish Agency, at a time of intense and unprecedented crisis for the Zionist movement, testifies to the extreme importance attached to the plan.”(23)
In the early 1940s, a transfer proposal, concerning Shi’ite Moslems, was put forward in connection with Southern Lebanon. It was at this period that the idea was floated of extending the borders of Palestine to the Litani River in southern Lebanon.(24)
In August 1941, a month after the armies of the Allied powers entered Syria and Lebanon, Eliahu Sasson, head of the Arab Division of the Jewish Agency Political Department, went on a visit to Beirut. There he had discussions with various people regarding the future of Lebanon. One of the Moslem leaders, Muhammad Haj Abdullah, suggested to Sasson that the Zionists purchase all of Jebel Amal (approximately the area between the Litani river and the northern border of Palestine), and he undertook to transfer the Shi’ite Moslems then living there, who numbered 400,000, to Iraq, within a period of ten years.(25) (It has been suggested that this quoted number, 400,000, was in fact about twice the true number.(26)) He even offered to provide a memorandum to this effect, signed by all the Sheiks and leaders in Jebel Amal.(27)
Sasson added that the question of Jebel Amal also came up in a conversation with a former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Bishara al-Khoury. He informed Sasson that it was essential to transfer these Shi’ites, since they presented a constant danger to Lebanon and to the Jews. However he added that these Shi’ite Moslems should be replaced by Maronite Christians, who were at the time living in America. They would then be neighbours to the Jews and they would be able to work together without any disturbances from the Arabs.(28)
Just as the plan for the transfer of the Druze came to naught, so did this plan for the transfer of the Shi’ite Moslems.