Israeli security authorities arrested the four most prominent pro-Syrian Druze leaders in the Golan Heights today and charged them with incitement to civil rebellion following a week of mounting opposition to Israel's annexation of the Syrian territory.
More than 3,000 Druze attended a meeting in Majdal Shams tonight and declared a general commercial strike throughout the Golan Heights Sunday to protest the arrests and the annexation.
Earlier in the week, the Druze leaders sent a telegram to Prime Minister Menachem Begin urging that Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights on Dec. 14 be rescinded and declaring that the Druze, who number 12,500 in the Golan Heights, are Syrian Arabs living under occupation and that they will be forced to resist if Israel continues to impose its law on them.
The four arrested include Kamal Kanj, a former member of the Syrian parliament who in 1969 was sentenced to 10 years in prison by an Israeli military court for security offenses. He was released 18 months later because of failing health.
The others are Sheik Suleiman Kanj, Sheik Mahmoud Hassan Safadi and Kanj Kanj, all of whom are outspoken pro-Syrian Druze leaders who have been active in a campaign to refuse the acceptance of Israeli civilian identity cards being issued by the Ministry of Interior. Virtually all of the Golan Druze have refused the cards.
The 31 Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights, meanwhile, were reported today to have agreed not to employ any Druze workers who do not hold Israeli civilian identity cards.
Tensions in the Golan Heights increased last week following four public meetings at which some Druze threatened a campaign of civil disobedience, including refusal to pay Israeli income taxes and rejection of Israeli national insurance benefits if the annexation law is not rescinded.
The Druze are members of a secret splinter sect with Islamic roots. As a minority in a region that has been conquered by one army or another over the centuries, they have developed a reputation of dexterity in political survival, generally showing little resistance to the prevailing authority.
The Druze are divided between those who openly support Syria and those who have advocated for years Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. But there is a large bloc of Druze residents who, anticipating a possible political resolution to the issue in favor of either Syria or Israel, have refused to commit themselves to either camp.
Israeli officials today sought to minimize the importance of the current unrest in the Golan Heights, calling it a result of intimidation from Damascus.
Nissim Dana, an official of the Religious Affairs Ministry, which is responsible for Golan Heights Druze activities, called the resistance "not more than passive participation in meetings and rallies against Israel."
"Anyway, we are talking about a small group that, for various reasons, tries to incite the local population to oppose Israel. The group acts, with encouragement and sometimes with material assistance from leftist and communist groups, and is also influenced by daily propaganda by Syrian radio and television," Dana said in an Israeli radio interview.
He said Druze have also been intimidated by threats by religious leaders of religious and social "shunning" of pro-Israel Druze and by threats against Golan Druze's family members who live in Syria proper.
"If here and there, there will be some disturbances, the appropriate agencies will take the right and lawful steps against all lawbreakers," Dana said.
He said the longstanding Israeli practice of allowing Golan Heights Druze to visit with Syrian family members at the chain-link fence along the border may also increase intimidation, and that Israeli officials will reconsider the policy in meetings this week.
But, Dana said, "as long as the political situation between Israel and Syria remains as it is now, I don't think there will be complete quiet in the Golan Heights."