TEL AVIV – The Israeli government has begun to actively promote voluntary army service for Israeli Arabs. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is meanwhile considering plans to make civil service compulsory for all Israeli citizens, including Israeli Arabs.
The Arab community in Israel is opposing the plans, and leaders say these are only a way of getting rid of Palestinian identity. They also have misgivings about compulsory national civil service, which means community service in towns, hospitals, or schools as an alternative to military service.
Last month Israel’s Ha’aretz daily newspaper presented recruitment numbers showing an increase in the number of Israeli Arabs volunteering for the Israeli army. Israeli Arabs, unlike their Jewish countrymen, are exempt from military service.
The information provided to the newspaper by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) divides Israel’s Arabs into Bedouins and non-Bedouins, the first referring to the indigenous and formerly semi-nomadic tribes in the desert, and the latter to the Palestinian population living within Israeli borders.
The IDF did not provide accurate numbers, but the number of Bedouin recruits is estimated to have increased from 50 to 100 since the beginning of this year, making a total of about 300 Bedouin recruits so far. And an officer in the IDF’s human resources department was quoted as saying that the total number of non-Bedouin Arab recruits will reach 350 by the beginning of next year.
The full personnel strength of IDF is more than 175,000. The Bedouin community in Israel is estimated to be around 150,000 and the Israeli Arab community is 1.14 million a fifth of the population of Israel. Relative to this, the number of new recruits is quite small, even if Ha’aretz called that increase "dramatic."
In the same week that the report was published in Ha’aretz, Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit called upon the Arab sector to join the civil or military service. At a Jewish-Arab conference on economic development, Sheetrit made a controversial remark about the first prime minister of Israel. "I believe that Ben-Gurion made a big mistake," he said. "He brought the Arabs into a ghetto, a shutdown, when he decided not to enlist them to the army."
"We all live in one country, we’re all in the same boat. Israeli citizens need to be equal in every aspect, in their rights, and their obligations. Our forefathers’ days have ended. We are living in a modern state, in the 21st century."
The move to include Israeli Arabs in the army is the government’s way to reduce future tensions between Jewish and Arab residents of Israel. But not everyone is sure it can work.
"When you’re in the army, you have to fight," says Hila Pinas, who served in Gaza for six months as an IDF soldier. "You can’t possibly expect the Arabs to fight their own people, can you? It’s just not appropriate."
Many leaders of the Arab community are disapproving of the idea. "We object to any kind of military service," says Mohammad Zeidan, president of the Arab Human Rights Association. And there isn’t much of it, he says. "Three hundred and fifty recruits is not much if you figure how many Israeli Arabs are living in this country."
"The Israeli army presents this number as if it were a major success. As always, there is a hidden agenda: it is a very effective way to get rid of Palestinian identity. This is about the Israelization of the Arab community: that’s why they display it as an enormous victory."
Arab leaders are objecting to compulsory civil service just as much. "Civil service is the first step to eventually joining the army," says Raja Arbarijeh, president of the Palestinian Abnaa il-Belad (Sons of the Country) Party. "It’s the government’s new agenda, a new policy since the end of the last Intifada. After the bloody fights we fought they have chosen to fight the soul of Palestinian nationality with other means: by trying to lure us into civil or army service."
Arab leaders also doubt claims about a rise in the number of Arab soldiers. Abbas Zakur, an Arab member of the Knesset and a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, says "as far as I know, the number of Israeli Arabs in the army is decreasing. And if there is a rise, it is momentary and certainly not a phenomenon that will continue."
"The new generation of Arabs in Israel is even more dedicated to the idea of an Arab nation than the previous generation," Zakur told IPS. "The young Arabs want peaceful coexistence more than anything else. I hope that our future efforts to live together in peace can set an example for the whole world, once the Jewish people let the Arab minority in Israel live in dignity. Like this, the world could learn how to treat Jewish minorities all over the world."
Abbas Zakur says neither side is keen on this kind of movement. "I don’t think it’s serious. They can’t ask us to join their army. There is no possibility that a Jew will ever turn into an Arab or an Arab will turn into a Jew. None of the sides is interested in this."