The trials of an Israeli Arab prosecuting Palestinians

Israeli Arab Arin Shaabi's job as a military prosecutor for the Israel Defense Forces puts her in the difficult position of handling the cases of fellow Arabs, earning her hatred from some. 

Christa Case Bryant
Arin Shaabi works at a military base on the seam of Israel and the West Bank, crossing just over the threshold each day to prosecute Palestinians from the territory.

Arin Shaabi walks a fine line between Arab and Jew every day. 

When she drives to work, she crosses from Israel into the northern West Bank, not far from Jenin. Just over the border, inside her small trailer office on an Israeli army base, a stack of folders awaits her attention – pink for criminals, green for terrorists.

All the files belong to Palestinians, who live beyond the maze of rusty fences, barbed wire, and concrete barriers that separate her from the offenders. Some are just kids, accused of throwing stones or Molotov cocktails. Others are suspected of transferring enemy money into the territory, or making contact with enemy agents. As a military prosecutor, it’s up to Shaabi to review the evidence and shepherd the cases through the military courts.

It's a sensitive task, especially because Shaabi is herself Arab. Very few of Israel's 20 percent minority of Arabs serve in the military. In 2011, Shaabi was one of only 94 Arab Christians in the whole Israel Defense Forces (IDF) (with another 155 Arab Muslim soldiers). 

While most Israeli citizens are required to serve in the military, Arabs like Shaabi are exempt. So the fact that she volunteered, and even fought against cultural and bureaucratic resistance to get a job in which she is responsible for prosecuting fellow Palestinians, initially earned her the hatred of Palestinian defense attorneys who work on the base.

“One told me that in the beginning he hated me because I didn’t have to do military service,” says Shaabi, a soft-spoken woman who joined the military out of a sense of responsibility to her country. “But when you work with them and they get to know you, it disappears.”

There have been tough moments in the past two and a half years, such as when she was exposed to the gruesome evidence of a Palestinian attack that killed a sleeping couple and three of their children in the Israeli settlement of Itamar in 2011. Worried about the effect the evidence would have on a fellow prosecutor, a Jewish woman, she forbid her from looking at it.

Shaabi admits it took extra courage to make it here at all, coming from the Arab city of Nazareth, where it’s strange to see any Israeli soldiers in uniform, let alone Israeli Arabs. She says she found strength in her mom’s support, and inspiration in the stories her maternal grandmother – who was born Jewish – told her as a kid.

With two Jewish uncles from her grandmother’s first marriage, Shaabi grew up with a pair of IDF soldiers in the family. And since Judaism is passed through the maternal bloodline, some would even consider her to be Jewish. But since Shaabi's grandmother converted to Christianity when she got remarried to an Arab Christian man in the late 1950s, her mother was raised Christian, and chose to raise Shaabi that way.

“At home we didn’t have any racism or anything,” Shaabi recalls, saying her grandfather was courageous to marry a Jewish woman just a decade after Israel declared independence and some 700,000 Arabs either fled or were forced from their homes. Her grandfather was among the small minority who stayed.

“I grew up with the idea that this is where we live, this is our country. And in the same way that we have rights, we have responsibilities,” she adds. “So I felt that even though it’s not mandatory for me to join [the IDF], it’s my responsibility to do it.”

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