Universal draft a call to arms for Israeli Arabs (REUTERS) By Crispian Balmer JERSALEM, ISRAEL 07/11/12 12:45pm EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - They may inhabit parallel universes, but most ultra-
Orthodox Jewish men and Israeli Arabs share the same instinctive
aversion to the idea they should be forced into military service.
A court decision earlier this year to annul a draft law has forced
the government to review rules surrounding military and civilian
conscription of young men, with growing calls for all members of
Israel´s disparate society to share the burden.
The inward-looking ultra-Orthodox community has long been mobilized
to forestall efforts to curtail bible study for their young men and
draw them into the military.
Muslim and Christian Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the Israeli
population and complain of cradle-to-grave discrimination, are only
now being sucked into the debate.
"There is no reason why young Jews, Muslims or Christians should not
be recruited at age 18," Israel´s ultranationalist foreign minister,
Avigdor Lieberman, said on Monday, adding he would present a bill for
a universal national service next week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, obliged by the Supreme Court to
devise a new law by August 1, hopes to put the Arab issue on hold as
he tries to defuse the ultra-Orthodox timebomb, and can expect a
furious response if he challenges the status quo.
"Arabs will resist any attempt to draft them or to implement plans
that are not agreed first with our communities," Hanna Swaid, an Arab
Christian member of the Israeli parliament (Knesset), told Reuters.
"We have already raised the prospect of civil disobedience."
Military service is a rite of passage for most Israelis, who view the
army as a core element of national identity. That is where the
problem starts for many Arabs, who associate more closely with the
Palestinians and feel alienated in a country created in 1948 that
defines itself as a Jewish state.
"They keep on talking about a Jewish state and then they want the
Arabs to serve this Jewish state? This is impossible," said Swaid, a
member of the Democratic Front for Change party.
Military service in Israel is onerous. Men are expected to serve
three years and women two, with reserve duties continuing thereafter
until the age of 40, or 45 for officers.
Supporters of the draft say this is not only vital for national
security but also key to successful integration into Israeli society
thereafter, with employment prospects and plum jobs often closely
tied to one´s military networking.
Arabs are exempt from compulsory military service but a handful of
Arabs do volunteer and say many more would do so if their leaders
were not so fiercely opposed.
"I am a proud Arab, Muslim Israeli. I call on Israeli Arabs to leave
your ghetto ... stop being a silent voice, a discriminated-against
and bitter people," said Annette Haskiyah, a 43-year-old divorced
mother of three, addressing a large, pro-draft rally in Tel Aviv on
Two of her children have already enlisted and the third is set to do
so. "Give, and you well get. Belong, and you will receive the respect
you deserve," she later told Channel Two television station.
The government estimates that just over half of Arab families live
under the poverty line, but Arab leaders dismiss the idea that the
army will lead to well-being, pointing to the experience of the
Israeli Druze, who are part of the draft.
The Druze are ethnic Arabs, who emerged 1,000 years ago as a sect of
Islam with a distinct identity. Sprinkled across the Middle East,
their elders in Israel agreed to conscription for their men in 1956,
hoping it would improve their lot in life.
More than 50 years later, and despite often illustrious careers, a
growing number of Druze openly question the benefits.
Amal Asa´ad retired from the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in 2000 as a
brigadier general - the second-highest rank achieved by a non-Jewish
officer. Tall, with a neat moustache and impeccably dressed, Asa´ad
says the Druze suffer neglect by comparison with the Jews, despite
sharing security duties.
"In the IDF, the Druze feel exactly the same as the Jews. You get the
same rights, you feel part of a team. But that ends when you leave
the army. You return to your village and it is like getting a slap in
the face," he said. "It kills you."
Asa´ad complains that whereas Israel has authorized countless
gleaming new towns to welcome in hundreds of thousands of Jewish
immigrants since the founding of the state in 1948, they have failed
to build a single new village for the Druze.
"There is respect for the Druze, but it ends there," he said,
speaking in the Druze village Isfiya, in northern Israel.
While the IDF has embraced the Druze, perhaps seeing them as
ethnically distinct from other Arabs, there is much skepticism that
it would want to absorb large numbers of non-Druze Arabs, given that
all its wars have been against various Arab armies.
"I am sure many of the Jews think it is better not to have us in the
army because they don´t trust us," said Nadim Nashaf, who heads
Baladna, a group devoted to helping Arab youths.
"And we don´t want to fight their wars against our fellow Arabs," he
added, speaking by telephone from Haifa.
He also opposes calls for a mandatory civilian service for those who
do not go to the army, saying the money for such a scheme should be
spent on education and better infrastructure for Israel´s notoriously
ramshackle Arab towns.
At present just 2,400 Arab youths - 90 percent of them women - are
signed up to the volunteer national service, which involves poorly
paid work for one or two years in a variety of places, such as
hospitals and schools.
The parliamentarian Swaid said Arabs would reject any attempt to
impose an obligatory civilian service, but might be prepared to
discuss proposals under certain conditions.
"We cannot accept a situation where an Arab youth serves in a Jewish
institution. We would want any voluntary work to be carried out
within our own constituencies," he said.
As the government plots a way forward, the big question is whether it
has the resources to pay for this and how much it wants to disrupt
relations with its recalcitrant Arab citizens.
"On the surface things are quiet right now, but underneath you can
see there are problems," said Nashaf, whose Baladna group plans an
anti-draft rally in Nazareth later this month.
"Adding compulsory service to the mix would bring nothing positive to
the relationship," he predicted. (Additional reporting by Dan
Williams; editing by Ralph Boulton) (© Thomson Reuters 2012.
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