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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 Andreas HacklContributor / August 1, 2012

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.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

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Jerusalem

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. 

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“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. 

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.

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