Israel considers drafting its Arab citizens

Plans to reform Israel's draft law include the possibility of requiring Arab citizens of Israel to perform non-military national service. Serve us first, many of them say. 

By , Contributor

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    Israeli lawmaker Michael Ben Ari speaks in front of police officers during a rally by Jewish ultranationalists in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab town, calling to draft Israeli Arabs July 15.
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Thousands of Israel’s Arab citizens could soon be asked to do national service for their country, but many are pushing back, saying Israel has yet to serve them. 

“When the moment comes and we are asked to perform civil service, we will resist,” said Nizar Hilawa, an Israeli Arab activist at a recent festival in the Israeli town of Nazareth. “Israel wants us to do service to the state, but first of all this state has to treat us as equal citizens."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made military draft reform a top priority, primarily to "share the burden" of military service between Israel's secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are currently exempt from serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. This month Mr. Netanyahu proposed a bill suggesting that by 2016, some 6,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews should serve in the IDF. 

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The bill also includes a less-talked-about provision that would require 5,000 Arab citizens of Israel to perform national service. Resistance is coalescing among Israel’s 1.5 million Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s total population. Like the ultra-Orthodox, they have been exempt from compulsory service since Israel's inception. 

Netanyahu's office ruled out the possibility of compulsive military service – a scenario Israel's Arab community has long feared – earlier this month, but it will become a reality for civil service, says Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman. “We want to see an incremental process where more and more Arabs perform the service,” Mr. Regev says.

Skepticism about equality abounds

Previously, Israeli Arabs could volunteer to do various types of national service. The number who choose to do so has increased by 60 percent since 2011, reaching 2,400 Arab volunteers in 2012, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. Israeli officials have emphasized that national service opens doors and job opportunities for Arabs and have criticized Israeli Arab leaders for their opposition.

Under the new law, national servants would work in various social service and health-care institutions, such as hospitals, schools, and community centers (similar to those volunteering already). In theory, performing such national service would entitle Israeli Arabs to the perks that a Jewish Israeli who has completed military service enjoys: cash grants, discounted mortgages, better access to government jobs, and financial aid and housing at Israeli universities.

But many Arabs in Israel think they'll continue to be discriminated against, despite performing national service intended to make them equal to Jewish Israelis. And while about 41 percent of the Jewish public agreed that Arabs should be required to perform military or civil service at the age of 18, according to a June survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, about 45 percent said the current situation, where Israeli Arabs serve on a voluntary basis, should remain.

According to a 2009 survey conducted by the Israeli-Arab youth association Baladana – as part of the organization's effort to convince Israeli Arab youth not to volunteer for national service, according to Haaretz – 64 percent of Israeli Arabs between the age of 17 and 20 believed then that national service "was an impractical solution for creating equality between Arab and Jewish Israeli citizens."

As a non-Jewish minority in a state that defines itself as Jewish, Arabs often complain about unequal access to land and discriminatory legislation, such as the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which prohibits Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza who are married to Israeli citizens from acquiring Israeli residency. Most of them strongly identify with Palestinians.

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group described Arab citizens of Israel as “politically marginalized, economically underprivileged, ever more unwilling to accept systemic inequality.” 

No benefits, no loyalty

One of the speakers at the festival held in Nazareth last week was Fida Zidan, a 23-year-old woman from Israel’s Druze community. The Druze have enjoyed a special status in Israel and are officially treated as an ethnic and religious group distinct from Arabs. Most important, they have been required to serve in Israel’s army for decades, with the exception of the Druze of Syrian origin who live in the Golan Heights

“The Druze gave Israel loyalty because they thought they will get full rights in return. But today we see that this loyalty has not brought us much,” Ms. Zidan says. 

Two of Zidan's brothers died while serving in the IDF. One died in an accident; the other during fighting in south Lebanon. She says she and her only remaining brother have since rediscovered their Arab identity, and now emphasize their solidarity with Palestinians, not their fellow Israeli citizens.

“Many Druze don’t really feel Israeli, just like Arabs," she says.

“The Druze made a historical decision to serve in the army, but a younger generation realizes now it was a mistake,” says Ilan Pappé, an Israeli historian and professor at Exeter University. “They have hardly benefited economically or socially from this.”

Mr. Pappé, who is a prominent critic of Israeli policies toward Palestinians, says that today’s Arab citizens of Israel understand that contributing to the common good by performing national service will not make them equal citizens.

“Non-Jews in Israel will never be equal citizens, whether they serve in the army, do national service, or not,” he says.

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