National service plan riles Israeli Arabs
29 June 2012, 13:59
Nazareth - Israel's plan to overhaul its military
draft has veered into turbulent new territory with the government's
abrupt proposal to mobilise the country's Arab minority for civilian
Israeli Arabs would be asked to perform community service and would not be required to join the army.
the concept of any compulsory government service has stirred a hot
debate within the Arab community over its place in the Jewish state,
along with fierce resentment over being asked to serve a country that
often treats its Arabs as second-class citizens.
The proposal has
also created an uproar within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
ruling coalition, because not all Arabs would be required to serve.
state has never sat down with us to discuss the entire array of issues
[we have], including our rights and historical rights," said Ayman Odeh,
point man on the issue for the influential Israeli Arab umbrella group,
the High Follow-up Committee for Arab citizens.
government imposes this on us without sitting down with us, without
consultation, without dialogue, we will not obey this law," he said. No
Israeli Arab sat on the parliamentary panel crafting recommendations for
the new draft bill.
are ethnic Palestinians and descendants of those who remained inside
Israel's borders after the Jewish state was established in 1948.
make up 20% of Israel's 7.8 million people and are largely exempt from
the military, though several thousand do serve or perform voluntary
The calls to conscript Arabs into national
service are part of a broader overhaul of Israel's draft law, which the
Supreme Court has ordered amended by 1 August.
The original aim
was to end sweeping exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews, but Netanyahu
says national service is a burden that must be shared by all, including
Israeli Arabs. Israeli men are required to serve three years in the
military, and Israeli women about two years.
committee had expected to release its recommendations for a new draft
bill next week. But the panel unleashed a political storm on Thursday
when it said it planned to require 6 000 Arabs to perform community
service by 2016.
This year, 2 400 Arabs have volunteered for such
service, of an estimated 60 000 who fall within the 18 to 22 age group
that the national service programme would target. Many Israeli Jews
think all Arabs, like all Jews, should be compelled to serve.
Thursday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu Party
and another smaller faction quit the committee in protest because Arab
service would not be mandatory.
Arab lawmakers, on the other hand, were angry that the proposal had a compulsory element at all.
don't have to be the victims of the war of the Jews between Lieberman
and Netanyahu," said Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi of the Raam-Taal Party.
all Israeli Arabs oppose community service, seeing it as a welcome
opportunity to help people, expand horizons and improve their Hebrew.
Jews of draft age who cannot or will not join the military, they would
be able to serve in hospitals, schools and other social service settings
as a civilian alternative.
But the controversy over the proposal
reflects a fierce debate within the Arab community over whether to seek
to belong to the Jewish state or be on the outside.
Arabs have always been in a precarious position, at once citizens of
Israel and Palestinians identifying with the statehood aspirations of
the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
enjoy equal rights on paper, Israeli Arab communities receive far less
government funding for schools and public services, and Arabs often face
bias in employment and housing.
But many in the community want the government to narrow the gaps between Arabs and Jews before compelling Arabs to serve.
should I do something for a state that doesn't give me everything?"
asked Elias Alaa, a 19-year-old aspiring doctor in Nazareth.
home, the biblical city of 60 000 where tradition says Jesus spent his
childhood, has suffered from years of neglect. Like other Arab towns and
villages, Israel's largest Arab city is burdened by overcrowding, its
potential hindered by rundown infrastructure.
"For years, we've
been demanding equal rights. No committee was set up to discuss the
equal distribution of rights," said Amal Elsana Alh'jooj, an Arab
"So now, when talking
about the burden, why are they remembering the Arabs all of a
sudden?"Critics also worry that compulsory community service could
dilute the Israeli Arab community's Palestinian identity and open the
door toward mandatory service in a military that fights other Arabs.
Arab leaders say they would support a volunteer programme if the
administration and budget were turned over to the Arab community, which
would tailor it to Arab culture and the Palestinian national identity.
don't want Arab youths, many of whom already pepper their Arabic with
Hebrew phrases and dress like Jewish Israelis, identifying any more
strongly with the Jewish state.
"We insist that this remain
volunteer," said lawmaker Ibrahem Sarsur of the United Arab Party. "We
don't want this to be a stepping stone to military service. If the
government insists on approving compulsory service, we will oppose it
fiercely, even if we have to go to jail."
Israeli defence officials have no known plans to draft all Arabs.
Israel has exempted most of its Arab citizens from the military, in
part because of distrust and in part because compulsory service could
force Israeli Arabs into a position of divided loyalty.
No pay off
main exceptions are the Druse, an offshoot of Islam, whose leaders
agreed to the draft decades ago. The military does not release
conscription figures but says thousands of Druse serve each year.
Hundreds of Bedouin, Christians and Muslims also volunteer, mostly in the hope of improving their lot in Israeli society.
theory, at least, community service would entitle Israeli Arabs to the
same bonuses a discharged Jewish soldier enjoys: Cash grants, discounted
mortgages, preferential treatment for state jobs and access to
financial aid and dormitories at Israeli universities.
leaders says the Druse loyalty to the state has not paid off: Druse
income, unemployment and educational levels are on a par with that of
other Israeli Arabs, and their villages do not enjoy the same state
funding that Jewish areas do.
"We don't believe compulsory
civilian service can close the gaps between the Jewish and Arab sectors
in all walks of life because we have the example of the Druse," Sarsur