Israel courts Christians for military service


Israel plans to distribute military calling up papers among men in its Christian Arab minority, provoking the accusation from some that the government is trying to divide the Israeli Arab community.

Military service for both the 1.3 million Muslim Arabs and the 130,000 Christian Arabs in Israel is still voluntary, but the Israeli Defence Forces are hoping that this new move will increase Christian Arab recruitment.

On average around 100 Christian Arabs volunteer for military service in the IDF every year. The aim is to increase that number tenfold to 1,000.

Senior officer Lieutenant-Colonel Amir Hai was quoted by Reuters as saying: "We intend to appeal to the Christian population of conscription age [17 and 18] and will send them call-up notices to volunteer for service.

"No unit will be closed to Christian conscripts ahead of time, unless there is criteria that limits the recruit's ability to serve."

Speaking about the reasoning behind arranging things this way, the Israeli army radio said: "Under these new arrangements, [Christian Arabs] will no longer have to submit their own enlistment request and expose themselves to potential pressure from their Christian coreligionists or from Muslims, who are overwhelmingly hostile to conscription."

Israel's Jewish population are forcibly conscripted at the age of 18, with men required to serve three year tours, while women serve for two years. Exceptions are provided for the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, which remains a divisive issue.

This move for special separate treatment for the Christian Arab population comes two months after Christian Arabs were granted representation separate from Muslim Arabs on a national employment commission.

Bassel Ghattas, a member of parliament for the communist Hadash party said to Middle East Online that: "The measure was to be expected following the campaign by the Israel right to divide Christians from their own people by encouraging them to think that they are not Arabs."

Mr Ghattas went further than merely calling for Christian Arabs to reject, the military's invitation. He encouraged those who received these papers to "send them back or publicly burn them, because the next step could be compulsory military or community service".

But some leaders of the Christian Arab community welcome the move.

Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth, said to Reuters: "Young people in the Christian community need to understand the importance of serving and getting involved in the country in which they live and which protects them, and in which we are full citizens.

"We are not Arabs. We are not Palestinians. We are Israelis, citizens of this country and we see ourselves as loyal to this country and its institutions as any Christian living in any other place in the world would.

"I welcome this important, historical step ... for the Christian community to be a member of Israeli society, equal in rights and duties."

Charisma News reports that the employment rate for Israeli Christians is 63.8 per cent for men and 45.3 per cent for women. Among Christian Arabs specifically, for both genders it is 48 per cent. This is much lower than the national rate of employment of 75 per cent for men and 66 per cent for women.

The Christian Arabs are descendants of the 160,000 Palestinians who remained in Israel after the state was created in 1948.