The past six months have seen a significant rise in the number of Arab Christians joining the Israel Defense Forces, although their number is still minuscule. The actions of people within the Arab Christian community to integrate their members into Israeli society may be behind the rise – actions that raise the ire of many others, who believe that army service is intended to strike a blow at Palestinian unity.
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Last Tuesday evening, Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek-Orthodox priest active in a group – founded in 2012 – that supports and works toward more Christian Israelis joining the army, held a meeting at the home of a local family in the Galilee town of Shfaram.
Shortly after the meeting started, a number of young men came to the door and demanded that Nadaf and everyone with him leave. The host, who wanted to avoid violent confrontation, decided to end the meeting. But the leaders of the fight against Nadaf’s initiative – mostly identified with Arab political movements – have promised to protest everywhere that the forum comes to preach its message about joining the army. “This plot must be buried,” one of the protesters told Haaretz.
The IDF does not provide precise numbers of Christians serving in its ranks, but the forum says the rise is significant and that there are currently 300 Christians serving in the IDF, 157 of them in the conscript army. According to figures presented at a meeting sponsored by the Defense Ministry late last year in Upper Nazareth, 84 Christians joined in the last half of 2013. In the past, that was the number that joined over 18 months. The forum says there are dozens more waiting in the wings.
Maj. Elias Karam, of Ilabun in the Lower Galilee, served on an Israel Navy gunship and is now stationed at the Haifa naval base. Karam says his three brothers also joined the IDF or the Border Police. “I am in favor of joining and I encourage others to do so,” he said. “I think it contributes a great deal and opens many horizons. The desire of a person to join the army and integrate more and more into the state must be respected,” he added.
Maj. Keren Azar, commander of the Tiberias draft office where most Christians come to sign up, says that most hopeful new recruits “want to be in combat units. Some want positions or professions they can use when they get out,” she says.
The forum, which also keeps statistics on volunteers for national civilian service, says that no fewer than 429 young Christian women are now serving within this framework.
The community’s old-timers say the issue of Christians joining the army has arisen every few years since the establishment of the state, sometimes as a result of internal disputes. For example, 10 years ago – during the period when the demand was being made to build the Shihab e-Din Mosque in Nazareth near the Church of the Annunciation – more Christians joined the IDF.
Supporters of the initiative told Haaretz that, this time, the impetus for the rising numbers might be coming from outside Israel – attacks on churches in Egypt and the beheading of priests in Syria have strengthened the view that the Arab world cannot be relied on, and therefore integration into Israel is the best protection for them.
But opponents say this viewpoint mainly serves the Zionist interests of the right, in a form of “divide and conquer” of Arab Palestinian society in Israel – Druze, Muslims and Christians.
Historian Dr. Johnny Mansour, of Beit Berl Academic College, says that in 1948, “Christian society, like the rest of Palestinian society, was smashed to pieces, and now they talk about integration and loyalty to the state. Has the state and successive Israeli governments seen to the rehabilitation of relations with the Christian community and the Arabs in general? What will they say to the displaced residents of Iqrit and Biram, who since 1948 have been waiting for the government to fulfill its promise to allow them back to their villages.”
The government, Mansour adds, is in breach of a 1952 High Court of Justice ruling on the issue. He says most young Christians know that the state will not treat them differently even if they serve in the army, citing as an example the Druze community, “which has not received equality as a collective, and where calls against joining the army are increasing,” he says.
Opponents note that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to invite Nadaf for a meeting before Christmas and his praise for the forum, plus support for the forum by deputy minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) and other right-wing Knesset members, only increases their opposition. “How can you talk about equality according to the worldview of those people?” an opponent of the draft of Christians asked.
Samer Jozin, a leader of the forum, admits that Netanyahu’s support spurs on opponents of the initiative. He is keen to stress that, at the moment, the government is not supporting the forum financially, but rather its members fund its activities through their own contributions. However, he believes that government support will arrive eventually.
Jozin, from Me’ilya, comes to many of the forum’s meetings together with his daughter, a 12th-grader who has put off plans to study medicine in Romania to join the army and “go far,” as she puts it. “I personally believe that this is my country and [it is] my obligation if I want to receive full rights.”
Leaders of the Catholic Church in Israel have recently published a statement against youngsters from their community joining the army. They say Christians are being encouraged to join the army to bring them “into the Zionist melting pot of Israeli society to create a unified national Zionist narrative,” which will lead to a loss of their Arab-Palestinian identity. “This goes against all human values and the national Palestinian conscience,” the statement said.
Father Ibrahim Daud, a Catholic priest in the village of Makr, near Acre, says that beyond issues of nation and conscience, joining the army goes against Christianity as a religion of nonviolence, noting that Jesus said, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matthew 26:52).
Capt. (res.) Shadi Halul of the Upper Galilee town of Jish, who served in the Paratroop Brigade and is a descendent of displaced residents of Biram, admits that there is inequality and institutionalized discrimination against Arabs and Christians. However, he says, “I go on the assumption that I have no other country and so I must act to receive my full rights.” He believes this will put Arabs in a position to pressure the government for their full rights.
“If we continue to shout about Arab and Palestinian nationalism, nothing will move ahead,” he says. “I believe that if the displaced people of Biram had become integrated, then the demand for their return would be a much stronger one.”