“I came to convince people that Arabs are not lazy people or extremist and that they have reasons for refusing to do national civic service,” said Iman Ouda, the spokesman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and the secretary-general of the liberal Hadash party, at the beginning of his meeting with us.
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Ouda is not particularly extreme himself. For example, he is firmly opposed to the condemnation of Israeli Arabs who volunteer for national service as traitors.
"You are my brothers," he said he tells them. "I do not accuse you of treason, even if you are wrong.”
He has taken a fair amount of criticism from Arab society for his relatively moderate stance. Still, the things he has to say fall harshly on Jewish Israeli ears.
The thundering debate over Israeli Arabs volunteering for national civic service has drowned out discussion of the serious problems in the relationship between the State of Israel and its Arab citizens. After 64 years, the time has come for us to hear Israeli Arabs out.
Ouda made four assertions against Arab national service, all of which are commonly made by Arab leaders.
The first assertion sounds completely ridiculous to Jewish ears. Apparently Israeli Arabs are convinced that national civic service is the first step toward their being drafted into the army. There are quite a few reasons for this suspicion. The Lapid Committee, which recommended the establishment of national service, stated in its report that it would be a first step toward army service. The Ivry Committee, headed by the former director-general of the Defense Ministry, David Ivry, also linked the rights of the volunteers with the rights of discharged soldiers. There are other such examples.
This is a coincidental accumulation of symbolic facts that are of no importance to Jews. But given the background of Israeli Arabs' severe lack of trust in their state, these symbolic recommendations appear glaringly urgent.
The second and more substantial assertion is that Arabs were not consulted on the issue of national service.
“The High Commissioner has made his decree,” said Ouda, referring sarcastically to the Israeli state.
The Lapid Committee, the Ivry Committee, the Administration for National Civic Service and the Plesner Committee all made decisions regarding national service in Israel with no Arab involvement.
"There’s something offensive about deciding things without consulting us," Ouda said. "They’ve been negotiating with the Haredim for 30 years straight, but with us – nothing.”
The pervading opinion among those involved in the issue is that ignoring Arab leaders was a major tactical error. The Arab leadership, interpreting the lack of consultation as an attempt to exclude it and subvert its legitimacy, rejected the idea of national civic service out of hand.
According to a position paper published by the Abraham Fund regarding the Plesner Committee, the state pushed national civic service unilaterally, over the heads of the Arab leadership. This approach, which undermines the legitimacy of the leadership and attempts to outflank it, creates resistance among the Arab public, which wants the state to treat its elected officials with respect.
The third assertion, which is still more substantial, is that Israel has the relationship between rights and obligations wrong. For Israeli Arabs, the state's expectation that its citizens to contribute, either by serving in the army or performing national civic service, as a condition for receiving rights or becoming employed, is anti-democratic.
“Why aren’t Canadian citizens required to serve in order to receive rights?” they ask.
This line of thinking gets even harsher. Israeli Arabs claim that the Jewish linkage of national rights and obligations is just thinly veiled racism.
“If all of us serve, will we receive equal treatment?” asked Ouda, rhetorically. Look at the Druze and Bedouin “who serve in the army and still live in unrecognized communities with no water or electricity. The moment a Druze is discharged from the army, he goes back to being just another Arab. But the Haredim don’t serve in the army and still receive full budgets that no Arab does."
The fourth assertion is that the process should be reversed. Israeli Arabs insist on equality as a condition for volunteering rather than volunteering as a condition for equality.
“They talk to us about equal sharing of the burden without mentioning equal rights,” said Ouda. “And on top of that, they put us into the same category as the Haredim. But we work and pay taxes, so we share the work burden.”
Nader Sarsour, the mayor of Kafr Qasem and a moderate Israeli Arab leader, voices similar concerns.
“How can you ask young people to volunteer when they live in villages with no roads or schools?” he asked. “We are a minority that has already been forgotten for 60 years. This minority has to be assured of basic rights first of all, before anybody asks it to free up time for volunteering.”
Plus, the Arab minority says – throwing the idea that rights come from obligations back in the Jewish majority's face – it is Israel that has the moral deficit to makeup. Most Arab-owned land was expropriated by Ben-Gurion’s government in the 1950s.
“This country is the one that must give back what it stole from us. We’re not the ones who need to contribute to it,” Ouda said with bitterness exacerbated by the state.
The Or Commission, which investigated the clashes between Israeli police and Arabs in October 2000, mentioned the Israeli Arab city of Sakhnin in its report. The city sprawled over 70,000 dunams during the Mandatory period, but now covers 9,700 dunams – only 4,450 of which are included in the municipal master plan. In other words, Sakhnin lost 90 percent of its land.
The Or Commission mentioned 60 other Arab communities that lost all their land when the state dismantled them and forced their inhabitants to move to other Arab communities. These Arabs became landless residents, refugees in their own state. Ikrit and Biram are only two well-known cases from the 1960s.
“I’m a native citizen. I was born here,” Ouda said. “The state is the one that stole my land, perpetrated the massacre in Kafr Qasem and imposed martial law on me. The state is the one that should be giving back to me, apologizing to me. I’m a weak citizen, and the state has a responsibility to protect the weak. If it’s going to make us volunteer, first it has to start taking care of us. It has to start talking with us about the whole picture of relations between Arabs and Jews. In 64 years the government never sat down and talked with us. Maybe the time has come to start talking?”