JULIS, Israel -- Thousands of hands held aloft the simple white coffin of the leader of the secretive Druse sect yesterday, bearing him to his house, where he was buried under the floor tiles of a small room.
With 95-year-old Sheik Amin Tarif, the Druse buried a period of stability, and looked with uncertainty toward problems brought by peace, discontent among the young, and division over the selection of a new spiritual leader.
Thousands of Druse from Israel and Lebanon converged on a barren rock outcrop by the Galilee home of Sheik Tarif to honor the man who had been the religious head of the sect for 65 years. He died Saturday night.
For some of the 3,000 who came from Lebanon -- among them some Syrian Druse -- it was a rare opportunity to cross into Israel to this village 15 miles northeast of Haifa.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, also came, evidence of the unique position the insular Druse have carved for themselves in the Jewish state.
"Return to your homes and be messengers of peace," Mr. Rabin told the Druse who had arrived from outside Israel, acknowledging that the Druse homeland spans three countries still officially at war. There are estimated to be 700,000 Druse in Syria, 500,000 in Lebanon and about 100,000 in Israel.
The colorful Druse, whose men wear baggy black pants and circular hats and sport glorious white mustaches, are an odd party in the Middle East. They are an asterisk on the roster of who is against whom.
Distrusted by both sides
They are often called Arabs, but they are not. They speak Arabic, but the ones here have Israeli citizenship. They are hated by some Arabs and mistreated by some Jews. They are a religion shrouded in secrecy and closed to outsiders.
They also are divided. The boundaries of Israel, Lebanon and Syria split families. In the Golan Heights, separated families shout from one mountaintop to another over the border. And sometimes they fight each other: Druse serve in the armies of all three countries.
"If peace comes, it will be a happy day for us. We have so many families that are divided," said Sallah Tarif, one of two Druse in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
But peace also would bring problems for the Druse. Perhaps more than any other community in Israel, the Druse depend on the military service. The Israel military refuses to say how many Druse are in its ranks, but nearly 300 have been killed while in uniform.
There are few other occupations in the Druse villages. Druse men join the army or the border patrol; they retire on military pensions or switch uniforms to be security guards; their widows survive on army pensions. If peace brings a flushing out of the service, many could lose their jobs.
"We don't have any factories here. What will we do for jobs?" asked Yusef Ali, a former soldier.
Fear of Syria
If Israel reaches a peace agreement with Syria, about 13,000 Druse in four villages on the Golan Heights may return to Syrian control. As a precaution against retaliation if that happens, virtually all of the Druse in those villages have rejected Israeli citizenship. But some are too closely associated with Israel and could be endangered.
"There are some families that would have to move. They are afraid of being back in Syria," said Sallah Tarif, the Knesset member.
Some of the institutions of the Druse also are threatened. As the spiritual leader, Sheik Tarif had authority to settle disputes. Some of the younger members of the community say it is time for that theocracy to end. They want a more modern, secular arrangement.
"Young people, students, don't agree with the decision of this mafia," said Masad Kadour, 28. "They want a civil authority."
Finally, the very selection of a successor to Sheik Tarif is being challenged. At yesterday's funeral, Druse officials appointed the old sheik's grandson, a pudgy-faced 31-year-old named Muwafak Tarif, as spiritual leader. They hoisted him on their shoulders and shouted their blood allegiance to him.
But as they did so, others were heckling from the crowd. One man tried to tear off the symbolic coat of leadership from Muwafak Tarif's shoulders. His critics say he is too young, inexperienced, and too closely aligned with the Israelis to represent all Druse.
"There is no adequate successor. There is no one experienced enough to replace the sheik," said Said Farhan Hamoud of Beit Jan village in the Golan Heights.
Opponents of Muwafak Tarif have rejected the claim that the old sheik wrote out a will naming his successor. They have demanded a more democratic method of picking the next spiritual leader.
"No community in Israel has experienced such confusion in political, religious and public matters alike," observed the Hebrew daily Haaretz yesterday.
The Druse are followers of al-Hakim Amr Allah, who rejected the teachings and ceremonies of Islam in the early 11th century. Most of their beliefs and rituals are secret, even from their own people -- only religious leaders know.
They have jealously guarded that secrecy in isolated mountain areas. In Lebanon, they dominate the Chouf Mountains, in Syria the Golan Heights, and in Israel they are in the hilly Galilee and the Golan.
Adapting to conflict
Their survival is in part due to political adaptability. They see no conflict in serving in opposing armies, for example.
"We don't have any political ambitions of our own. Wherever you find Druse, they are good citizens. They serve their country," said Yehayal Halibi, 54, who lives in Lebanon inside Israel's "security zone."
They have resisted assimilation with remarkable success. There have been few intermarriages, and relatively little flight from the Druse community into the majority populations. But that too, may be changing. In Israel, Druse soldiers see new notions, such as Israeli women working in relative equality. Young Druse who seek education experience other ways of the world.
"With the sheik gone, there will be lots of difficulties," said Fadi Abukhala, a young man working in the religious leader's house, a place decorated with citations and awards given by Israeli authorities. "It will be a hard time for all of us."