National service plan riles Israeli Arabs

2012-06-29 11:41

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 national service.

Israeli Arabs would be asked to perform community service and would not be required to join the army.

But 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.

"The 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.

"If the 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.

Broader overhaul

Israeli Arabs are ethnic Palestinians and descendants of those who remained inside Israel's borders after the Jewish state was established in 1948.

They 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 community service.

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.

The parliamentary 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.

Arab anger

On 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.

"Arabs 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.

Not all Israeli Arabs oppose community service, seeing it as a welcome opportunity to help people, expand horizons and improve their Hebrew.

Like 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.

Narrowing gaps

Israeli 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.

Although they 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.

"Why should I do something for a state that doesn't give me everything?" asked Elias Alaa, a 19-year-old aspiring doctor in Nazareth.

His 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 activist.

Budget control

"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.

Some 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.

They 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.

Historically, 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

The 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.

In 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.

But Arab 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 said.

  • Rashida Patel - 2012-06-29 14:05

    Unbelievable ! The israeli arabs are treated as inferior citizens in their own land ,then required to do national service. Sounds a lot like the south african apartheid days.

      mark.kiggen.94 - 2012-06-29 16:30

      Mizz Patel, stop your rambling. Focus on the wonderful caste system in your origins of India rather. Blacks did not have to do national service in apartheid days. Israeli Arabs are not inferior citizens. Please focus on Jewish rights in Arab lands please, there used to be 800000 Jews there. If they want to get free health, unemployment and child grants etc, they can contribute too!

  • Habib - 2012-06-29 16:24

    Apartheid is rife in Israel. But Israel likes to act like the victim. Sad that our government (and the rest of the world) thinks apartheid has vanished.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-06-29 16:59

      It's the martyrs versus the victims. Martyrs are more destructive and dangerous, as the almost daily car bombs and suicide attacks testify.

      mark.kiggen.94 - 2012-06-29 20:11

      PLease prove apartheid, just saying it doesnt make it so, and when proving, please compare to similar treatments of minorities in any Middle East (Arab/Moslem) country so that the readers get a good comparison? Moreover, please compare the rights of your so called second class Arabs citizens of Israel to the rights of any Moslem homosexual, woman or minority in any Arab country... thank you

  • jason.jaded.1 - 2012-06-29 19:10

    And another thing... Please stop posting that if people (in this case Arab-Israelis) want national benefits (ie. healthcare, social welfare, child grant etc.) they must also chip in and do their bit or bear the burden. It only makes you sound even more ignorant and oblivious to how state economies work. They're called rates and taxes people! NOWHERE in the modern, sophisticated and democratic world uses forced national service or conscription as a tool to offset or pay for these kinds of benefits! Not even Israel! Yes, if you do happen to wilfully sign up for national service of some form, you tend to get state pensions and state-sponsored healthcare as gratitude for serving the state (or public in some cases), but this DOES NOT exempt ordinary tax-paying citizens from receiving national benefits or grants. Conscription is an antiquated tool for military might and political power within the state that employs it; and in some extreme cases can be viewed as a form of slavery. Take a look at Wikipedia and see which countries are still employing forced national service. 99% aren't exactly kosher countries either. Note how many of these states are renowned for their notorious military might and how many use this might as a tool to invariably suppress their own citizens. Sound at all familiar?

      mark.kiggen.94 - 2012-06-29 20:08

      I look forward to your equal criticisms of Moslem treatment of non-moslems across their lands, treatment of women and homosexuals, and religious intolerances etc? If Israel reeks of apartheid as you like to put it, what do those countries that hang you for being homosexual reek of?

      mark.kiggen.94 - 2012-06-29 20:08

      over 12000 killed in Syria - where are your wise words? Cant find a way to blame it on them Jews yet?

      jason.jaded.1 - 2012-06-30 10:55

      ...and which Muslims woulds those be, Mark? Sunni? Shia? Ibadi? Strangely enough Muslims can be equally intolerant of non-Muslims as they are of their opposing Islamic denominations. At least they're consistent, and in most cases aren't denying their intolerance. I'm actually equally critical of all denominations including the various Islamic denominations and their in-fighting shenanigans, much like I am critical of the various Christian denominations and the wars they have waged while splitting hairs and fighting for political dominance. All of which I have discussed in various other topics. But since those opinions have NO baring on THIS article, why would I bother repeating myself? Unlike Jaba, Fred and Larry, I don't blindly rush to all articles targeting Israel and simply copy/paste old washed-out rhetoric or opinion that has either been poorly paraphrased or copy/pasted from the even worse hashed-out propaganda that does the rounds on their community email network; whether it relates to the article in question or no. I have my OWN opinions and heaven's forbid, they can and do evolve or change over time. That's what they call being "objective" and judging the situation according to the events at hand. I also express them in the appropriate forums and articles, rather than (like you) trolling only these articles while defending your beliefs by playing the victim and pointing out all the other children who have also been naughty.

      customdesign - 2012-06-30 11:17

      Israel is in no position to make conscription voluntary. It is not slavery, if you have a small population, have other nations that want to wipe you off the face of the earth, then you do not have much choice in the matter do you? And besides that, conscription offers the chance to learn skills and get disciplined. And if Arab-Israelis are on the receiving end of protection from the Israeli military, I do not see why they should not also contribute on the same level as Jewish Israelis. I think this is the next step to equality in Israel, and its a good thing.

      jason.jaded.1 - 2012-06-30 11:28

      ... as for my views on Syria, which have little to do with THIS article by the way! I feel that due process is taking place. The highly socialist, autocratic and militant government (legitimate or not) have revealed their true colours and intolerance and are duly being scorned globally and shown for what they really are. The citizens are taking military action while the world seeks a political solution to a highly volatile situation that now encompasses more than just Syria and it's domestic woes (ie. Russia, China, N. Korea, US, Turkey etc.) What is interesting here, and it's something that DOES have a baring on this article, is that the Syrian regime is ALSO a military-strengthened regime that employs national service and conscription as a tool to subjugate it's own citizens - be they Arab, Jewish, Sunni, or Christian. So my question to you is this… While pointing fingers away from the State of Israel and at the oppressive regime in neighbouring Syria, are you supporting the freedom fighters or the regime? If it's the freedom fighters you support, why then do you view their uprising and struggle for freedom from oppression any differently from the "terrorist" non-Jewish Israelis and Palestinians fighting for freedom in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank? Or is it really just a case of "One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist", depending, of course, which side of the blockade you're standing on?

  • pages:
  • 1