Ein Naquba - When Nasim Awadallah finished high school two years ago, he didn’t have many prospects. His grades were not good enough to get into university. He worked at a minimum wage job for a few months but was not satisfied.
So he volunteered for Israel’s national service, an alternative to army service, which is under the control of the Defense Ministry. He works at the same school he attended in his village. In the mornings, he helps the physical education teachers and in the afternoons he coaches three separate soccer teams.
“I decided to do something with my life,” Awadallah tells The Media Line after a quick pick-up soccer game with some of his charges. “I decided to serve the country and I hope it will help me in the future. I think that after I do this, people will look at me differently.”
Israel has a universal draft – three years for men and two years for women. Two large segments of the population are exempt from being drafted –Arab citizens of Israel and the ultra-Orthodox. They are, however, permitted to volunteer for both the army and the national service, and a growing number are doing so.
National service began as an alternative framework for Orthodox Jewish girls who didn’t feel comfortable in the mixed gender environment of the army. According to Adi Luria of the Volunteers Association, jobs are available in a range of settings, from hospitals to education to clerical jobs. During their service, the candidates receive training and a small stipend. Afterwards they are eligible for government grants for education.
“Israeli society gives a lot of weight to the army and serving your country,” Luria told The Media Line. “When you don’t do that, something is missing from your resume.”
She says some 3000 Arab citizens of Israel are now volunteering – and the number is growing every year. But some have also criticized the volunteers for cooperating with the Ministry of Defense.
“Some of the people I knew in east Jerusalem sent me nasty letters when they heard that I decided to join national service,” Awadallah said. “But then I said to myself, 'I don’t care. I need to do what’s right for my future.'”
A smaller number of Arab citizens of Israel are serving in the army. Male Druse, an Arabic-speaking offshoot of Islam, are drafted and many have risen to high positions in the army. But until recently, very few Christians or Muslims volunteered for the army.
That may be beginning to change.
“I always wanted to be drafted,” Arin Shaabi, 27, a military prosecutor in the army told The Media Line. “Arabs also live in this country. This is my country and I don’t see myself living anywhere else.”
Shaabi grew up in Nazareth, with an Arab father and a Jewish grandmother. After studying law, she volunteered with the army. As part of her job, she prosecutes Palestinians who have attacked Israeli soldiers.
“I do my job in the best way I can,” she said. “I am objective and I don’t let my feelings affect me. I speak to the defense attorneys in Arabic and I have good relationships with all of them.”
She said she got some raised eyebrows the first few times she wore her uniform home. But now, she says, people have gotten used to it. She has signed on to stay in the army until 2015.
Arab citizens of Israel make up one-fifth of Israel’s population. They have long complained of discrimination in municipal budgets, education and job opportunities. The political leadership of their community still often discourages volunteering for national service, and certainly frowns on the army, which they see as a tool of the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank.
Yet more and more young people are choosing to serve, and each one often convinces several friends to join as well. Nasim Awadallah says three of his friends have already signed up for next year. And he’s convinced he’s learning skills that will help him his whole life.
“The program has taught me how to be a teacher,” he said. “I have learned so much and now I really know how to deal with kids. I have much more self-confidence than I did before I started.”
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