The number of Arab Israeli youth performing national service has more than doubled this academic year, despite strong opposition to the initiative by the overwhelmingly majority of Arab community leaders.
According to figures provided by the Administration for National Service, 240 Arab Israeli youth chose to volunteer for national service in the 2005/2006 academic year. The number rose to 289 in the last academic year, and jumped to 628 in the current one.
Three-quarters of Arab Israeli youth want to volunteer for national service, according to findings presented at the Herzliya Conference on Wednesday.
The national service program has been angrily rejected by leaders such as MK Jamal Zahalka, who said the Arab community would treat participants "like lepers," and other MKs and Islamic Movement leaders who have suggested recently that the voluntary program is a covert plan to eventually draft young Arabs into the IDF.
According to a study presented at the conference, 75.3 percent of Israeli Arabs support national service, compared to just 7.8% of the community's leaders.
The support, however, was deeply affected by communal attitudes.
Asked if they would support the program if Israeli Arab leaders opposed it, support for national service among respondents fell drastically to 42.2%. If local community leaders were also opposed, support fell further to 35%, and if one's family were opposed, it fell to 27.1%.
The study, conducted by University of Haifa researchers in late 2007 among 910 Israeli Arabs and 78 community leaders, also questioned the reasoning behind the different attitudes of the leadership and the general population.
The study found that most of those opposed to participating in national service did so for nationalistic reasons, with some saying it was a first step toward forced military draft, some opposing the participation in state institutions and some expressing skepticism that national service would help Arabs achieve equality. Meanwhile, supporters of national service said they favored the program because it would benefit them personally.
According to the Administration for National Service, nearly all the Arab Israeli youth who choose to volunteer do so in their own communities. Half of them work in educational institutions and half of them gravitate to the health and welfare fields.
Last week, a government decision went into effect establishing the Administration for National-Civic Service in the Prime Minister's Office, creating a mechanism for expanding the national service program beyond the current annual number of some 11,000 volunteers, most of whom are religious Jews.