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INTERVIEW: Omar Saad - 'Speaking Druze is speaking Palestinian'

The violist of the Palestine Youth Orchestra explains the controversies it has raised, and the challenges facing the Druze community in Israel
Omar Saad of the Palestinian Youth Orchestra (PYO)

Nineteen-year-old Omar Saad, a violist in the Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO), is a member of the Druze minority living in Israel. Last year, Israeli media regularly reported about him following his refusal to perform compulsory military service. Middle East Eye caught up with Saad in France, during PYO's tour there.

MEE: Can you first tell us more about your community? Who are the Druze of Israel?

Omar Saad: This is a group professing Muslim faith apart from Sunni and Shia traditions. There are 118,000 of us in Israel. Since 1956, the Israeli state has developed a policy that aims to isolate us from the rest of the Arab community in Israel. It starts with conscription. Treating us as if we were Israeli Jews, each Druze is called to do his three years military service at the age of 18, while "Arabs of Israel" are exempt.

The second weapon is the development of a school system for the Druze, separate from Jewish schools and traditional Arab schools. From primary to high school, we are among Druze. The aim is to make us brainwashed from childhood. We are taught loyalty to the State of Israel.

MEE: How do your community members identify themselves: Arabs, Palestinians or Israelis?

OS: The question of identity is really complicated. Nobody really represents the Druze identity. Whoever wants to do his military service cannot claim to represent the Druze community, nor those who refuse to serve in the Israeli army, as many of us do not wish to be politically involved or position ourselves in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

MEE: You were part of those who, last year, refused to serve in the Israeli army. How did you justify this refusal?

OS: On 26 August, you could see me play at the Paris Conservatoire with the Palestine Youth Orchestra. This troupe is my second family. We eat together, we party together, we travel together to different countries together and we share everything. I can not imagine leaving them to stand at a checkpoint and check the papers of those living in the West Bank, or prevent them from travelling across their own land only because they are Palestinians.

I myself am Palestinian. My brothers and my sister are Palestinians. We grew up as Palestinians. Our parental education has taught us that we are Palestinians. And I am Arab as well. Even if I had not been a member of PYO, I would have refused because my parents taught me our history and explained to me that our place is within the Palestinian nation.

MEE: You do represent a special case in the Druze community, right?

OS: Unfortunately yes. Since 1956 [the year the Druze first had the obligation to serve in the Israeli army], many of us have refused to do the military service, but it remains complicated and marginal. To deter generations to come, Israel asks us to choose between conscription and imprisonment. The authorities also indicate that in case of refusal they will prevent us from working, having a driving license or accessing university education.

When you declare refusing the military service, there are different stages. From the beginning, the army suggests a few justifications in order to avoid you being perceived as an opponent of the political system or getting media attention. You are asked if you have a disability or illness. If you say yes, you avoid conscription but, for the administration, it is for medical and non-political reason.

Personally, since I declared my refusal to be recruited, I have been imprisoned seven times in seven months. My longest detention lasted about a month; it was the last one. They came for me when I was sick - I had a viral infection that required hospitalisation, and they began by denying me access to a medical treatment. I had to wait four days to see a doctor who allowed me to receive a treatment. According to this doctor, a few more hours without treatment and I could have died.

MEE: Your two little brothers are violinists in the PYO. They, too, will be called to serve in the army. What is their view on this?

OS: They will refuse. The first one will be imprisoned around October or November, the other one in a few years. Many things happen in a human being’s life, but when you are educated in righteousness, your parents endow you with an enlightened mind, and in our case, the pride of being Palestinian. This helps you to overcome all obstacles, including being imprisoned.

It is also one of the PYO’s leading ideas; unite the world’s Palestinians behind a banner. While almost everyone can come to Palestine, Palestinians in the diaspora do not have this opportunity, and those in the West Bank or Gaza can not circulate freely. With the orchestra, we represent them around the world. We also show that we do not represent terrorism but different talents and, despite the difficulties, we are doing our best to exist. The PYO is one of the strongest ways to resist the occupation. You can destroy all types of resistance, but the musical culture and artistic resistance cannot be fought.

MEE: In the news recently, there have been demonstrations in Tel Aviv in opposition to attacks by Jewish extremists against Palestinian civilians, including the burning of the house of a Palestinian family in which a baby and his parents died. How do you see Israeli civil society’s reactions?

OS: First, it has shown that terrorism has no religion or skin color or nationality. We had to react, and it was very important. Then, the main challenge is to understand that the enemy remains the apartheid that Israel is imposing on the Palestinians. This is what allows Jewish extremists to do what they want, go wherever they want. The state provides them with weapons to supposedly defend themselves, while they only kill Palestinian civilians who protest against colonisation.

The demonstration showed that regardless of your community, your home, your skin colour, people want to fight terrorism. The challenge is to define what is called "terrorism". Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza are terrorism. Finally, those who demonstrate must understand the mistake of perceiving the conflict as a conflict between two parties. Hamas does not have, and will never have, the military arsenal of Israel. And the operation last summer [against Gaza] has proved it. There is no war, just children, fathers, mothers and old people all composing an occupied people that are massacred in every new military offensive launched by the Israeli authorities.

MEE: In the city of Aix-en-Provence, the municipality insisted that an Israeli quartet perform in the same venue as you, in order to "balance" the fact that the PYO is performing in its city. What do you think of this decision?

OS: This is the proof of their support to Zionism, and it is not acceptable to any of us. If the mayor thinks that inviting an Israeli quartet to play in the same venue allows to balance something, or to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he should think again. For example, it'd be better for him to start by answering this question: if tomorrow the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Youth Orchestra of Israel came to play in his city, would he insist that the PYO or a Palestinian artist also perform in the same venue?

This article was originally published on Middle East Eye's French page. It was translated by Ali Saad.