After breaking glass ceiling in Israel, Druze woman aims for equality

Alexandra Vardi
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Gadeer Kamal Mreeh in April became the first Druze woman to be elected to Israel's parliament

Gadeer Kamal Mreeh in April became the first Druze woman to be elected to Israel's parliament (AFP Photo/JALAA MAREY)

Daliyat al-Karmel (Israel) (AFP) - Before a row of women seated in traditional Druze robes and white veils, Gadeer Kamal Mreeh stands out with her black suit and high heels.

"We are proud of you," a voice cries out from the audience of women who came to hear the candidate's political platform in her village of Daliyat al-Karmel, set in the hills of northern Israel.

The 35-year-old became the first Druze woman to be elected to Israel's parliament in April, but new polls were called shortly afterwards and she is hoping to win re-election in the September 17 vote.

Mreeh is part of the centrist Blue and White alliance led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz, the main rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party.

With this election, she hopes to win a real mandate, and her 25th place on Blue and White's electoral list gives her a strong chance to do so.

"It is the only way to change things," she told AFP in her village.

"It is time to send Bibi home and let Israel return to a little common sense," she said, using Netanyahu's nickname.

From Mreeh's point of view, Israel is moving too far to the right.

She points to a law passed in 2018 declaring the country the nation-state of the Jewish people, which Druze and other Arab Israelis say threatens to relegate them to second-class citizens.

Netanyahu pushed for the law, and Mreeh has made changing it her main issue.

"I joined politics for that reason -- to bring back equality," said Mreeh, who earlier in her career became the first non-Jewish Hebrew-language anchor on Israeli national television.

Some 140,000 Druze, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam, live in Israel.

They serve in Israel's military unlike other Arab Israelis who are descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land following the 1948 creation of Israel.

- 'It wasn't easy' -

Mreeh was joined at the recent event by two other candidates from her party who are also women: retired army general Orna Barbivay and Penina Tamanu-Shata, the first woman of Ethiopian origin to be elected to Israel's parliament.

Mreeh calls for diversity to be valued in Israel.

"I'm a woman and I'm a minority member," said the ex-journalist and mother of two.

"I made it. It wasn't easy. Believe me when I tell you that you can do it."

Nisreen Abu Asale, a 25-year-old law student, was convinced.

"She represents me completely," she said. "It's the voice of a new generation."

Yara Zahereldin, 21 and a political science student, said she was especially moved by her words on equal opportunity.

"She inspires me," said Zahereldin.

Mreeh has also been given the blessing of the spiritual head of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif.

Many Druze have voted for Netanyahu's Likud in recent years, but the majority opted for Gantz in the last elections, said Yusri Khaizran, a specialist in Middle Eastern history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

He believes the vote will be similar this time.

"It's mainly because of the feeling of frustration of Druze, who feel betrayed by the nation-state law," he said.

He added that Mreeh's "presence on the centrist list is undeniably a plus".