Should Arab Christians Fight in the Israeli Army?


Monday, January 6, 2014

New Netanyahu Recruitment Strategy Draws Split Reaction

December 31, 2013|4:54 pm
IDF soldiers at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Jenin.

Despite just composing a tiny minority of the country's 1.7 million Arab population, Israel has begun to more intentionally recruit Christians to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF.)

Arab Christians only make up 128,000, or less than 10 percent, of the entire country's population and traditionally have not served in the IDF, where service is mandatory for all Jewish Israeli men and women.

Arab Muslim and Christians are not required to serve (although Druze are) and according to an Associated Press report, the Israeli Christians, the vast majority of whom consider themselves Palestinian despite living in Israel, have long "considered service in the army as taboo." Only 1,500 non-Druze Arabs currently serve in the military, the majority of them from Israel's desperate, poverty-stricken Beduoin community.

Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Christian priest who sides with the government's decision to recruit among his population, said he believes his people have practical reasons -- economic and social integration -- to join the military.

"I believe in the shared fate of the Christian minority and the Jewish state," he said, according to AP.

Nadaf's spokesperson, Shadi Khalloul, an aide, pointed to the persecution of Christians across the Middle East in Egypt, Syria and Iraq and compared it with the status of Christians in Israel.

"They are burning churches, they are slaughtering them (Christians), they are raping the girls," said Khalloul.

But Oudeh Basharat, a Palestinian columnist for the Israeli newspaper "Haaretz," claimed instead that it seemed the Israeli prime minister was only attempting the recruiting campaign as a way to further splinter relationships among Palestinians.

Netanyahu told Christians at a forum recently that joining the IDF would "grant protection to supporters of enlistment and to the conscripts themselves from threats and violence directed at them," which Basharat suggested hinted that the Christian Palestinians' Muslim counterparts would one day turn and target them.

"If you listen carefully to the words of his blessing, it's impossible to shake off the feeling that this recruitment is aimed at achieving internal objectives within Arab society. Netanyahu seems to be playing, with much pomp, the role of the classic colonialist who adopts a policy of 'divide and conquer,'" Basharat wrote in a recent op-ed.

Basharat pointed to the decades that the populations had co-existed with one another and argued that the prime minister was trying to create division for his own benefit.

"Palestinian Arabs, Muslims and Christians, have been living here together for generations in harmony and sharing the same destiny, and now Netanyahu comes to divide them," he continued. "A country that sparks dispute between its sons is not a normal country. The time has come for the prime minister to absorb the fact that before him stands a nation, and not a collection of ethnic groups."

He also said Israel's recruitment efforts had yet to offer Christians "housing," "jobs" or "let the uprooted return."

"Really, how stingy can the Jewish state be: to serve and to bear the burden in return for 'Israeli society is proud of you?'" he wrote.

While numbers have been slow -- only about 50 Christians have joined annually -- those who have chosen have often faced pushback from their communities. Arin Shaabi, who works as a prosecutor in a West Bank military court, said that although she "stands by what [she does]," she has been harassed by others in her home town of Nazareth.

Shaabi has had a rock thrown at her car and she changes into civilian clothes before leaving the military base. Her mother has reported that her family's reputation has suffered.