A teenage Druse challenges compulsory army service

Musician and pacifist Omar Saad says he refuses to take up arms.

November 10, 2012 16:57
Golan Druse in Majdal Shams watch Sunday's brawls.

druse majdal shams_311. (photo credit: Oren Kessler)

Ramallah - Serving in a country’s army can be a source of pride for many, but for one young man from Galilee compulsory army service represents anything but honor.

In August, 17-year-old Druse musician Omar Saad returned from a concert tour in Italy only to find a summons to attend Israeli army pre-enlistment physical tests on October 31.

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Saad publicly rejected his enlistment in a letter he emailed to Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and posted online in late October. 

“I, Omar Zaher al-Deen Saad, will not be a fuel for your war’s fire. I will not be a soldier in your army,” the letter read. “I refuse to go through those tests because I completely oppose the unjust compulsory army service for my people, the Druse community.”

Conscription into the Israeli army is not obligatory for Arabs, who comprise some 20% of the country’s population, and volunteer numbers among Christians and Muslims are very low.

However, Druse men are obliged to spend the three years of compulsory service based on a decision signed by the leader of this 130,000-strong religious minority in 1956.

Druse call themselves monotheists and do not share their religious beliefs with outsiders, although they are believed to be worshipers of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. Druse speak Arabic and are largely considered ethnically Arab by themselves and the larger Arab community in Israel and the region.

Many Druse figures have assumed high-ranking posts in Israel, while others’ opposition to being part of the Israeli state is based on national motives.

“In my mind Druse are Arabs. I don’t care for any classifications of who is Arab and who is not,” Saad told The Media Line.

Saad describes himself as a musician and a man of peace, adding that he would not serve in any army in the world.

“I was raised to be part of the Arab, Palestinian people,” he told The Media Line. “To serve in the army was always out of the question, the debate between me and my family was about the way to avoid [service].”

As a viola player, his musical talent qualified him to be a member of the Palestinian Youth Orchestra, and he plays on international platforms with his Palestinian colleagues from the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel.

Saad explains that his conscience didn’t allow him to get a service exemption by faking physiological illness, or what is known as Profile 21. The term is a code referring to those deemed unfit for military service due to physical or psychological reasons.

He also intends to reject the option of civic instead of military service. "The civilian service is run by the army, and I don't want to be involved with the army at all," Saad told The Media Line.

Since August, the family has gathered several times to discuss the next step.
Saad’s mother, Muntaha, told The Media Line she supports her son even if it means he might face time in jail. “I wanted him to avoid both, service and jail, because no mother likes her son to lose his freedom, but in the end it is his decision,” she explained. “After all, his father also didn’t serve,” the 43-year-old teacher added, referring to her communist husband.

Zaher Al-deen Saad told The Media Line that he wishes he had the courage to refuse to serve the same way his son did. "I managed to get a letter from a doctor that said I was physiologically unfit for service," he says.

He did not face any legal consequences, as the Israeli authorities exempted him from service on the basis on Profile 21. "I would have not been able to tell you this 10 years ago because of the legal ramifications, but would a crazy man complete a second degree in philosophy?" he asked. He later joined the Communist party and was active at the university in Kiev where he studied.

Almost a week before October 31, the decision was made. Saad will not serve in the army, even if it means he has to face jail time.

And apparently, he will.

Zaher Saad told The Media Line that he expects the Israeli army to recruit his son, even without going through the physical check-up. He revealed that he might go with Omar to the military induction center on what is supposed to be his first day of service, which he will reject. "The IDF might delay the process of enforcement against him and keep his life on hold. We are aware of this, and won't accept it ... We want to show the world the brutality of this unjust system."

An Israeli army spokesperson told The Media Line, “The 1956 law states that potential draftees must undergo a medical examination. Noncompliance with the enlistment process is dealt with by the relevant enforcement authorities.”

Shahin Shahin, a Druse man from Shefa' Amr (Shfar’am) in the north of Israel who served in the Israeli army from 1984, told The Media Line that he didn't have a choice as the service is compulsory. "If you want to have a job or anything you have to serve," he says.

He was initially enrolled as a combat soldier, but he told The Media Line that he was opposed to that. "I ran away a couple of times and was imprisoned, so I asked to be moved to serving in the kitchen", he added.

The issue of army service is a hot topic among Palestinians living in the West Bank or Israel.

Many Palestinians look down on Druse soldiers, whose presence at checkpoints is not unusual. Some Palestinians think of them as traitors to the Palestinian cause, and many believe Druse soldiers treat them more harshly than their Jewish counterparts.

As a person who suffers from checkpoints as he goes to the Palestinian territories, Saad says he plays for love and freedom. “It just doesn’t work. How can I be a soldier at a checkpoint and prevent my friends their freedom of movement?” he asked.  

In a Facebook page created by a friend of his, Saad relied on friends to translate the original Arabic letter into seven languages. Over 10,000 people have signed up for the “Support Omar Saad” Facebook campaign; most of them are Palestinian and international friends saluting his decision.

Supportive photos and comments were shared on the website, and Saad is an active member on the page, expressing thanks for the support.

One photo caption reads: “You may jail a revolutionary but you cannot jail the revolution.” “You are our revolution,” a fellow musician wrote to Saad. 
The letter also provoked discussions in Saad’s hometown of Maghar and throughout the Druse community.

Readers’ comments on a website called “Hona” (meaning “here” in Arabic), that published the letter, reflected a gamut of reactions. Some comments undermined his physical fitness for military service, while others called him a fame-seeker.

”You’re a kid … your nationalism won’t earn you a living in the future ... Wake up,” read one comment.

Others were very supportive of a move they didn’t make themselves: “You are a hero; I regret every moment I spent in the Israeli army of hate, racism and destruction,” read another comment on the same website. 

The Israeli army spokesman’s office declined to comment on attempts made to avoid military service.

However an Israeli army spokesperson told The Media Line: “The enlistment percentage of Israeli Druse is higher than the average [of other communities].” The spokesperson explained that 82% of potential draftees in the Druse community enlist in the army, 57% of whom join combat units.

However, recent years have witnessed an increase in young Druse men’s public refusal to serve. In its latest press statements, the Druse Initiative Committee, which campaigns against compulsory enlistment, argues that the numbers of those who refuse to serve are increasing.

Arabs are often considered as second-class citizens in Israel, and this condition is usually linked to their exemption from national service.  

In his letter, Saad argues that this inequality has not improved because of the compulsory service: “Our villages are the poorest, our lands have been confiscated, and there is no urban planning or industrial areas. The ratio of university graduates from our villages is the lowest in the area, and the unemployment ratio is the highest. That compulsory service law has distanced and isolated us from our Arab community.”

Maghar, surrounded by 10,000 dunams (some 2,500 acres) of olive groves, nestles in rolling hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee. More than half of the town’s 20,000-plus residents are Druse, the others being Muslim and Christian Arabs.

Zaheer, Omar’s father, describes the town as a hotel, as most of its residents work outside, adding that there is a housing shortage in the town because the authorities do not allow them to build outside their residential construction zone.

Saad will graduate from high school next August and expects that the ramifications of his refusal to serve will come after that date.

He shared how his story affected his classmates. “Most of my them are Christians and some of them told me that they stopped wanting to voluntarily serve after they heard my views,” he told The Media Line.

At home, Saad usually practices on his voila for two hours daily, and he trains weekly with his two brothers Mustafa and Ghandi, and his sister Teeba. Together they form the “Galilee Quarto” musical ensmble. In his spare time, he teaches tennis.

Saad said that Netanyahu’s office replied to his letter with a short notice: “We received your letter and are treating it carefully,” he quoted the reply.

Both he and his mother cling to a hope that their burden will be lifted. They told The Media Line they still hope the Israeli authorities will grant him an exemption.

Saad, however, is not optimistic. “When I finish jail, my ability will suffer; I plan to go to Ramallah and train there for a year, and then I will be in better shape to apply for a degree in music in a university abroad,” he says.

For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org

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