The Israel Defense Forces will send draft notices to Christian Arab teenagers over the next several weeks in an attempt to increase voluntary enlistment within the community.
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Christian Arab citizens of Israel are not subject to compulsory military service. They can volunteer, but few do. According to an Army Radio report on the new policy, every year about 2,000 Christian Arabs reach the age of conscription. The IDF says about 150 Christian Arabs currently serve in the army, with some 50 new recruits signing up each year.
By reaching out to draft-age Christian Arabs with "voluntary draft notices" summoning them to the induction center, rather than waiting for them to come forward, the army hopes to encourage more of them to join. Army officials say the primary purpose of the policy is to inform young Christian Arabs about the available enlistment tracks and the enlistment process. At first, only young men, numbering about 800, will receive the notices.
A high-ranking officer in the Personnel Directorate predicted the policy will lead to an immediate increase in enlistment by Arab Christians. Personnel Directorate officials expect that by June, more than 100 members of the community will volunteer. Last year, 40 Arab-speaking Christian teenagers enlisted, according to army officials.
The issue of military service for Christian Arabs in Israel is controversial within the community. Supporters of the draft see army service as a civic duty. “I came to serve my country,” Monaliza Abdo, who recently completed three years of service as a combat soldier in the Caracal Battalion, said in an interview conducted in Arabic that was posted on the IDF's English-language website. Opponents say enlistment serves the Zionist interests of the Israeli right and divides Arab society in Israel into separate groups — Muslim, Druze and Christian.
Defense Ministry recruitment events aimed at Christian Arabs have in the past provoked dissent. In one case, a Christian clergyman was shunned by the community as the result of his participation.
Army officials are familiar with the social obstacles to recruiting within the community. “Of course, I’m aware of this matter, and I assume and understand that there are groups, movements and leaders here who perhaps would like to bring this matter into a discourse that moves from being political or social to the way they see things. But since the army and I are dealing with this in terms of army enlistment, and we saw their willingness to be partners, and they want to receive relevant information, we responded to that,” the high-ranking officer said.
Discussions about the policy began two years ago as part of a dialog about cooperation between the army, community representatives and the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum. According to the officer, “The Christian population identifies itself as different from the other Arabic-speaking population in the State of Israel, and wants to be a partner and take responsibility.”
Officials of the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum welcomed the initiative, noting that although the notices were for voluntary service, they still conveyed a public-relations message and showed that the state was sincere in its desire for the integration and promotion of the Christian population. “This decision is historic and opens a new chapter, a chapter of hope in all fields and mutual responsibility between Jews and Christians in the State of Israel alongside all the other populations that enlist,” the organization said in a statement. “It provides the young people of the Christian community with smoother integration into Israeli society and better progress on the ladder of both security-related and civilian positions. The Christian community is an important strategic asset to the State of Israel and its security.”
But MK Basel Ghattas (Balad) called on young Christian Arabs to burn the draft notices at a demonstration. “This is another desperate move by the establishment, whose goal is to split the Arab population by separating the members of the Christian community from Arab society as a whole. This is a dangerous measure that shows that soon, the state will impose mandatory enlistment upon the Christian young people,” he said, calling for Arab unity across the political spectrum to oppose the effort.
A large conference opposing the Arab draft will take place on May 17, sponsored by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee. The organization’s steering committee urged young Christians to defy the call-up notices and take the issue seriously. “This is another attempt to throw the young Arab people into the occupation’s swamp of killing and sow conflict in Arab society," the organization said in a statement. "In the end, it will all blow up as it faces the steadfast stance of the young Arab people, who are aware of their national Arab identity. We are confident that these young people will throw the notices into the trash because their Arab national feeling will not be put to the test, nor is it for sale for shekels or dollars.