Christian Arabs / Second in a Series - Israel's Christian Arabs Don't Want to Fight to Fit In

Yoav Stern
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Yoav Stern

Israel's Christian Arabs, for the most part, believe that serving in the Israel Defense Forces will not help them to integrate better into Israeli society.

At a meeting of a group of Arab Christians two weeks ago in Haifa, A. said: "Joining the army is the solution. Being armed gives a sense of strength so people will not attack you, and, on the other hand, you can approach the establishment more firmly."

But A.'s suggestion did not find many supporters at the meeting, which was called in the wake of the violent events that took place between members of the community and their Druze neighbors in the Galilee village of Maghar.

"What will a young man who gets a gun from the army do when someone attacks his house - shoot in every direction?" one of them asked. "Can you imagine such a situation? Many Christians in Maghar are armed but they did not open fire because they realized this would lead to an even greater explosion. We can't set up militias like in Lebanon. That is not morally or socially acceptable."

Another added: "No one should expect us to call on Christians to join the IDF. Anyone who really wants can do that of his own accord and be responsible."

The most convincing argument against enlisting is the situation of the Druze. The Israeli establishment continues to be inaccessible to most members of the Druze community, even though they undergo compulsory service, and their economic situation is not the best.

"We have complaints against the establishment but we would not choose to do what the Druze did. They are not satisfied either with the Jews or with the Arabs," says attorney Halim Makhoul. He believes the only way the Christians can solve their problems is by cooperating with all the ethnic groups, especially the Druze.

IDF figures, however, indicate that growing numbers of young Christian Arabs are enlisting in the army. In 2002 and 2003, the Christians were 0.1 percent of all the conscripts; a year later, their numbers had doubled. Altogether, in 2003, the percentage of Christians had grown by 16 percent over the year 2000. Most of them come from the large towns and serve in the Border Police.

"Military service gives them a better connection with Israeli society," says Colonel Amir Ogovsky, who is in charge of conscription.

The IDF does not publish figures about the number of conscripts, and it is thought that there are merely a few dozen Christians who serve.

"When there is peace, we'll have no problem serving, especially doing national service," says a Christian youth from the north. "But with the present situation with the Palestinians, we can't. We consider the steps taken by the army to be real crimes."

The Christians see military service as a betrayal of the Muslim public and the Arab world. They realize they could pay a price inside Israel but say they have a genuine feeling of belonging to the Palestinian people. Many leading figures in the Palestinian movement have been Christian, they note.

On the other hand, the Druze always serve the country in which they live, be it Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Israel. This is in keeping with their religious practices.

Prof. Salim Munayer, head of Musalaha, an association for reconciliation, was born in Lod and lives in Jerusalem. He believes the call to enlist in the IDF is heard every time the Christians are attacked and it springs from a feeling of impotency.

"A feeling that the central government is not providing security is one of the signs of general anarchy," he says. "When you feel that the government is not doing its job, the family or ethnic group looks for ways to protect itself," he says.

In a study he did of youth in the community in the 1990s, Munayer found that they face numerous conflicts with regard to their identity. "They are clearly interested in integrating into general Israeli society, which they regard as Western," he says, but this leads to conflicts with the Muslims, who view Westernism differently.

Munayer thinks that enlisting in the IDF will not give them full entry into Israeli society. "They see the Druze do not have equal rights," he notes. "Their only way to integrate fully is via private business or higher education."

Makhoul's family history is typical of that of many Christian Arabs. One son, Amir, works with him in their successful law practice in Nahariya. A daughter married and moved to Norway. Two other children who completed master's degrees at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem are applying for postgraduate studies at prestigious U.S. universities.

"My children have no real chance of finding a job suitable for their intellectual abilities in Israel," he says. "We are on the fringe of society and the economy here."