The day in late June when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned from the
Plesner Committee over its decision not to require Israeli Arabs to perform
military or national service, a 17-year-old Israeli Arab named Laith couldn’t
have looked less interested.
A native of the Arab village of Ein Rafa,
west of Jerusalem, Laith – who declined to give his full name – said he was far
more interested in hanging out with his friends during the summer holiday than
the debate raging in the Knesset, a 20-minute drive from his home, about
expanding the national service law to the Jewish ultra-Orthodox and Arab
“They can pass whatever laws they want,” he said with a
shrug of his shoulders. “I’m not going to do national service, and I’m certainly
not going to serve in the Israeli army. Neither will any of my friends. It’s
clear that this country is not for us, so why should we contribute to its
well-being? What’s in it for me? Would I get the same benefits afterwards that I
would if I were Jewish?” Relaxing with a frozen cup of orange-flavored slush
outside his family-owned grocery store, Laith and his older cousin, 32-year-old
Fadi, said there have been no negative repercussions to the few village
residents who have volunteered for national service over the years. But the
older man stressed his belief that national service veterans in the village
would discourage young people today to follow in their footsteps.
people who did volunteer in Israeli hospitals and other institutions are still
treated like Arabs, not like Israelis. They are pulled aside and nearly
strip-searched at Ben-Gurion Airport or whenever they travel to Jordan to visit
family members there. They don’t have any better access to building permits than
the rest of us. They did the service, but they haven’t gotten any of the
benefits they were promised,” he charges. “Why on earth would any Arab volunteer
for national service here?” While Laith and Fadi are certainly still part of a
strong majority of Israeli Arabs who refuse to perform national service in
Israel, a growing minority of young people from Arab communities around the
country are swimming against the stream.
According to numbers furnished
by the National Service Administration, a branch of the Ministry for Science and
Technology, the number of national service volunteers from the Arab community
has spiked from 240 during the 2004-05 academic year to a current number of
2,399. An administration spokesman, Lior Shohat, tells The Jerusalem Report
there would be another “dramatic rise” next year, but he said it is still too
early to know exact numbers.
Judging by a “job fair” in Beersheba on June
24, Shohat’s expectations are well-founded.
The fair, organized by a
private NGO called The Volunteer Association, brought hundreds of 17- and
18-year-old Negev Bedouins to a local hotel to learn about volunteer
opportunities offered by the police, the Fire and Rescue Services, the Prison
Service, a private venture known as “Cities without Violence” and more. Judging
by random interviews, attendees appeared split between 17-yearolds considering
volunteering next year and 18-year-olds considering options for a second year of
One young woman, 20-year-old Farhana Salh, will complete a
two-year stint of service in an elementary school in the Bedouin town of Kesaife
in the Negev next month. She says she came to the fair to help her younger
sister sift through the various service options for next year, and adds that her
service in the school computer room has helped her develop leadership skills and
lay the groundwork for a career in education.
“Working with little kids
has taught me a lot about patience and taught me to develop responsibility,
giving me a lot of selfconfidence,” Salh explains. “And it’s helped me
accomplish something concrete for the children – we’ve helped reduce the level
of violence in the classrooms.”
She says Arabs should serve despite the
prejudice and inequalities they suffer.
“Yes, there is discrimination,
but this is my country, no less than a Jewish Israeli. There is no question that
I belong here and that I should serve. I am Israeli and I am Arab. I never
considered opting out of national service,” she says.
Otman Abu-Ajaj, a
coordinator in the Bedouin program for The Volunteer Association, says there are
five main areas of benefit for young Arabs who do national service: personal
growth, career guidance, preparations for higher education, personal networking
that will lead to post-service employment opportunities, and a basket of
financial perks similar to those non-combat ID F veterans receive upon
completion of their military service.
These benefits include a NIS 750
($190) monthly stipend while serving, as well as social benefits such as
National Insurance and travel expenses. After completing service, volunteers are
eligible for an end-of-service grant (NIS 2,664 for each year of service), as
well as a government grant (NIS 6,432 for each year of service) that can be used
for a down payment on a house, university tuition or professional training, to
open a business or as a grant upon getting married.
stresses that Israeli authorities must manage the current rise in Arab national
service wisely, or the phenomenon could backfire.
“It is crucial that our
volunteers are being treated properly and that they are utilizing their skills
in appropriate ways,” Abu- Ajaj says. “Last year, one young woman spent the
first few weeks of her volunteer service doing nothing besides preparing coffee
for her boss and mopping the floor at the end of the day. We were able to step
in and to move her to a meaningful role in a primary school, but the story
illustrates just how important proper oversight and administration
“Ultimately, this sort of situation could cause the service program
to backfire. Had this young woman completed a year of service but failed to come
away from the experience with life skills and professional training, it would
have reinforced the notion that Arabs who serve the Israeli state are nothing
more than suckers, being used to support a state that isn’t really for
them. That’s not in Israel’s interest, and certainly not the interest of
those of us who are trying to encourage the Arab community to work within the
system,” he says.
One of the biggest hurdles the Israeli establishment
faces to incorporating Arab citizens into the ranks of national service is the
elected leadership in the Arab community itself. The Higher Arab Monitoring
Committee has an active magazine and billboard campaign in Arab communities
telling young people that national service for Israel is a “first step” toward
military induction, and that Israel’s ultimate goal for the program is to
“erase” Palestinian identity among young Arab Israelis.
Right-wing skeptics attribute that to a fear on the part of Arab politicians that young
Israeli Arabs will come away from serving the country feeling too “Israeli,” and
will eventually reject the main guiding principles of the Arab political
parties. Arab Knesset Members such as Ahmed Tibi, Hanin Zoabi and Ibrahim Sarsur
could be seen to be more committed to the Palestinian political cause than to
tending to the needs of the Arab Israeli citizens they
According to this line of reasoning, Arab Israelis, who
develop strong feelings of kinship with the state and who value the rights they
enjoy under Israeli democracy, will stop voting for the “old guard” of Israeli
Tibi and Sarsur failed to return phone calls requesting
interviews for this story, but Aymen Udeh, a member of the Higher Arab
Monitoring Committee, an umbrella body of the country’s Arab political leaders,
says nothing could be farther from the truth. Udeh, who also serves as director
general of the Hadash Party, said the issue of “Israelization” is something of a
non-issue for the community, noting that most Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew, vote
in Knesset elections, recognize the authority of the Supreme Court and
Rather, he said, the main issue for him is the fact that government
officials speak about Arabs performing national service, without speaking to
representatives of the community for a complete picture of the issues at hand.
Udeh was invited to testify before the Plesner Committee, but declined to appear
because the panel didn’t include an Arab member.
“How can you talk about
this issue for nearly a decade without sitting with members of our community?”
Udeh tells The Report
“Compare the Arab Israeli issue to the issue of
drafting the ultra-Orthodox. They’ve had representatives on every committee
that’s ever been formed to discuss their issue. We’ve never sat on any of
It’s a point seconded by Amnon Be’eri-Sulizeanu, co-director of
The Abraham Fund, a private enterprise that works to improve Jewish-Arab
relations in Israel.
Together with Mohammed Darawshe, his Arab
counterpart, Be’eri-Sulizeanu has worked intensively on the national service
issue for the past five years in the hopes of reaching an agreement between the
State and its Arab minority. Be’eri-Sulizeanu said a majority of Jewish Israelis
simply don’t understand this, like many issues relating to the Arab community,
and added that there is a framework in place that could serve a governmental
initiative to initiate dialogue.
“The National Committee of Arab Mayors
has praised the idea of community service, and they would absolutely support a
formal volunteerism program under their aegis. But the fact that they have not
been involved in the discussions, coupled with the fact that the post-service
benefits come from a fund tangentially related to the Defense Ministry, leave
them with a feeling that the whole program is connected to the military. That’s
a non-starter as far as they are concerned,” Be’eri-Sulizeanu tells The
Attempts to solve the national service crisis appear to have
broken down. One government official tells The Report
that the prime minister
has called for dialogue with the Arab community “to create a fair solution so
that all communities in Israel can shoulder their share of the national burden.”
But, as yet, no joint sessions have been held between government officials and
the elected leadership of the Arab community.
Be’eri-Sulizeanu warns that
as time goes by, national service becomes a showcase issue for the entire
Arab-Jewish rift in this country and will become harder to solve.
national service issue is becoming a microcosm of the larger issues. He stressed
that volunteer civilian national service could provide a strong platform to
address many issues for Israel’s Arab minority, and could also could create a
framework for members of different sectors in Israel to meet and work together.
That, in turn, could eventually create a true sense of social
Be’eri-Sulizeanu, Abu-Ajaj and Udeh all also agreed that
passing legislation requiring Arabs to participate in a national service plan
would backfire. “Right now, there is a vigorous debate in the Arab community
about whether and how to participate in a civilian service program.
the government passes a law requiring them to serve, that debate will be
finished, and the community will be a unified wall of opposition to the
“It is hard to see how that would be in anybody’s interest,”
concludes Be’eri- Sulizeanu.