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Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog earlier this week approved the first Arab non-profit organization that will direct Arab volunteers to civilian national service jobs. The Organization for Social Equality and National Service in the Arab Sector was founded some four years ago, according to director Aataf Alkarinavi.

Since the cabinet ratified recommendations to expand civilian national service to the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors in February, a steering committee has worked to implement the decision. This committee recommended officially approving the Organization for Social Equality for a pilot period of two years.

The nonprofit is headquartered in the Negev Bedouin town of Rahat, but offers services nationwide, so far placing 4,000 volunteers, including 200 Jewish youth, in civilian volunteer positions. Alkarinavi says most of the youths seek positions in educational institutions or in healthcare.

"Undoubtedly the organization faces a complex challenge," Herzog said. "This is another important step toward integrating all sectors of Israeli society and we are convinced the move will encourage additional populations to volunteer for national service."

Former deputy chief of the National Security Council, Dr. Rueven Gal, who is now heading the steering committee, told Haaretz that recognizing the nonprofit was a breakthrough because of its "Arab character." "In meetings with the Arab population, we heard that if there were an Arab nonprofit, that would help them volunteer," Gal explained. However, he emphasized that the nonprofit is committed to placing ultra-Orthodox youth as well.

Alkarinavi is aware of criticism from Arab public figures, who have called national service a prologue to mandatory military service. "This is not serving in a tank or holding a gun," he says. "We are citizens of one state in which Jews and Arabs live, and our young people should contribute to society."

Steering committee members explained that much opposition among the Arab population stems from misinformation. The team explained that the service is voluntary and will be carried out in the volunteer's community, and will earn benefits similar to those granted discharged soldiers.

Alkarinavi hopes to see 11,000 Arab volunteers in the next few years. "We are motivated to succeed because we are working for the entire population," he said.