The number of Israeli Arab recruits to the IDF has increased dramatically in the first nine months of 2008, official figures obtained by Haaretz indicate.

The rise in the Bedouin recruitment rate is attributed to Bedouin's difficulty in finding well-paid jobs outside the military and problems with the local authorities. The IDF has also improved its treatment of Bedouin army veterans and is helping them find employment.

The army refused to provide accurate figures, but the number of recruits is estimated to have increased by 50 to 100 from the beginning of the year, bringing the total number of recruits in 2008 to some 300.

The rate of non-Bedouin Arabs' recruitment has also increased in recent years, and an officer in the IDF's Human Resources Branch said he hoped that by next year their recruitment figure will reach 350, equaling the 2003 rate. Another significant increase in recruitment is expected next month.

Colonel Ramiz Ahmed, head of the population directorate in the IDF's Human Resources Branch, told Haaretz in an interview that the drop in recruitment in recent years cannot be attributed to events or the political atmosphere. While recruitment rates dropped after the October 2000 events - several days of protests in northern Israel during which 12 Israeli Arabs and one Palestinian from Gaza were shot dead - it rose again afterward. Toward the end of the Al-Aqsa intifada in 2004, the rate plummeted again and continued doing so until the end of 2007, Ahmed added.

The law exempts non-Druze Arab citizens from compulsory military service. However, many of them have been recruited over the years to the professional army, especially as trackers.

From the mid-80s, Bedouin were drafted into a six-month compulsory service, after which they joined professional army. Since 1991 they have been volunteering for a three-year compulsory service before joining the professional army. This was encouraged in the 1980s and 1990s by former defense minister Moshe Arens, who believed it would strengthen Arab youngsters' affiliation to Israel.

In the past year the IDF has prepared a plan to encourage Bedouin to join the army, and assist them after their discharge. This includes lectures in schools and help in directing discharged soldiers to studies and employment. "The intention is to improve the initial impression they get. They must leave the army with a direction in life," said Ahmed.

Most of the Arab recruits are placed with the desert reconnaissance brigade posted in the Gaza Strip. Most of the combatants are Bedouin, but some of the officers are Jews and Druze. Other recruits are trained as trackers.

The IDF has decided to open additional units to Bedouin soldiers, and today a Bedouin major is serving in the Air Force. The army is also acting to increase discharged soldiers' options to buy land. The government recently decided to reduce the development costs of plots in Druze and Arab villages by 25 percent.

Public Arab activists, political leaders and the Islamic Movement object to recruiting Arabs. However, in many cases the decision whether to serve is made by the person involved and his father. "I've had cases in which youngsters joined despite their father's objection. I had a soldier who used to change out of his uniform in the Be'er Sheva mall before returning home, and put them on again on his way to the base," a tracker officer told Haaretz.

However, the soldiers' reasons for joining the army are economic or rooted in the local authorities' restrictions on Arab citizens, rather than political. "We're not even allowed to put two rods together and attach a piece of cloth to them," said Master Sergeant Hamad Talalka, a tracker with the Sagi regiment on the Egyptian border.

Like the rest of the trackers, Talalka spends a week with his family then a week in the army, during which he hopes that his house in the northern Negev's Goral hills - for which a demolition order has been issued - remains intact. The authorities did not issue a demolition order for his brother's house, although the latter did not serve in the army.

The Bedouin tribes' ongoing struggle with the state over their lands does not deter the youngsters from joining the IDF. They believe that military service will give them a better standing vis-a-vis the authorities. Many of them see military service as a way of improving their social and economic situation.

Master Sergeant Camal Atrash served three years, left the army and has now returned for professional service. "After your release you find that your friends who did not serve have worked, bought new cars and live well, while you have to find a way to make a living," he said.

Atrash was refused a weapons license so could not work as a security guard, while his friend, who did not serve in the army, was issued a license to carry arms.

Bedouin officers, however, emphasize their commitment to the state. Second Lieutenant Amir Juamis, 27, of Beit Zarzir, joined the army at the age of 26 after his brother was discharged. His father was wounded in the first war in Lebanon, and another was wounded in Gaza in 2002. He joined as a combatant, trained as an officer and now commands a military team.

"I feel like an Israeli citizen and it's my duty to serve and contribute to the state. This is also the Bedouin's state," he said a few weeks ago.

Asked about how he feels fighting with his people on the other side of the border, he said: "a terrorist is a terrorist. Islam doesn't say you have to kill. He comes to kill here and can kill a Jew or an Arab. It's my duty to prevent that."