Text size

It's a pity that more Israelis did not take the opportunity to pay condolence calls on the families of the five Israel Defense Forces soldiers from the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion who fell in Rafah last week. It is important that the bereaved families realize that many Israelis - Jews and Arabs - share their grief for the loss of their sons. But no less important, the visitors would have seen a little-known side of the lives of some of Israel's Arab citizens. Israeli Arabs who do not mouth the anti-Israel slogans heard so often from the spokesmen of the Islamic Movement and by vocal Arab Knesset members, but rather Israeli Muslim Arabs who are loyal citizens of Israel, who see sharing the burden of defending Israel with the state's Jewish youngsters in the IDF as an obligation, as well as the surest way to integration of Israel's Arab community in Israeli society. Visitors to the bereaved families would have met many of their neighbors from the village and the surroundings, but no Arab Knesset members.

That many Bedouin youngsters volunteer for service in the IDF is by now well known, although some of the media used the occasion to report that recruitment was encountering difficulties and that Bedouin soldiers from the Negev return on leave to their homes not wearing their IDF uniforms. The fact is that there are occasionally such occurrences - they are not the general rule - but usually these soldiers have the support of the their families and tribes.

It is true that the Islamic Movement from the north is making inroads among the Bedouin in the Negev and carrying out an intensive campaign against service in the IDF. After the latest incident, even Hamas has joined this anti-Israel chorus. Even though Hamas suicide bombers indiscriminately target Jewish and Arab Israelis, they would deny Israeli Arabs the right to defend themselves.

Three of the fallen soldiers were not Bedouin. They were Arab youngsters from the villages of Arara in Wadi Ara, and from Ein Mahal and Turan in the Galilee. To the families of these Moslem Arabs, service in the IDF is an expression of patriotism and the fulfillment of what they see as an obligation to their country - Israel. Their sacrifice stands in stark contrast to the ugly anti-Arab utterances of MK Yehiel Hazan and former minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The IDF is one of Israel's premier educational institutions and has served as the melting pot for the waves of immigrants that have reached Israel over the years, as well as for Israel's Druze population. It can serve Israel's whole Arab community equally well. The IDF's role is to defend all of Israel's citizens - Jews and Arabs - and there is no moral reason why Israel's Arab citizens should not participate in carrying out this task. Excluding them from this role can only lead to a sense of alienation and continued denial of employment opportunities that exist in Israel's large defense sector and the many defense-related industries and services.

Compulsory military service can be justified morally only when it is applied equally to all. For far too long, certain sectors of Israel's society, including the Arab population, have been exempt from what is purported to be universal military service. It is high time to begin correcting this anomaly.

Unfortunately, it is only when Arab youngsters serving in the IDF fall in the line of duty that our attention is turned briefly to the problems facing Israel's Arab citizens, and we are reminded that the biggest challenge facing Israel is integrating its Arab citizens into Israel's society.

At the very top of that challenge stands the desperate situation of the Bedouin population in the Negev. In terms of housing, education, health care and economic conditions, they are at the very bottom of Israel's citizens. In addition, they are undergoing a traumatic change from an age-old nomadic life-style to forced urbanization. Service in the IDF provides new educational opportunities for their youngsters, but it is only one of many complementary approaches that have to be applied to ease their entry into Israel's modern industrial society. The absence of employment opportunities for Bedouin soldiers who have completed their military service is a source of great frustration and raises second thoughts about the utility of their volunteer service.

Ben-Gurion University is to be commended for instituting a course of studies for soldiers who have completed their service in the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion to prepare them for studies at the university. Hopefully, we will find some of the future leaders of Israel's Bedouin community among them.

And three recommendations to the Ministry of Defense and the IDF:

The rate of voluntary enlistment in the IDF among Bedouin youngsters in the Galilee compares favorably with the number of Jewish youngsters who are drafted into the IDF each year. The time has come to apply compulsory military service to the Bedouin in the north.

The practice of placing all Arab youngsters who volunteer for IDF service in the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion composed primarily of Bedouin soldiers should be reexamined.

Stationing the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion permanently in the Gaza area is a mistake. The unit should be rotated to other operational regions, as is the practice with all IDF combat units.