Once every few months, just before sunrise, several dozen men in army uniforms leave their homes, get into their cars and drive to their training center, called up for three to four days of endless workouts, long drills and crisis simulations. If not for the location, one might think that this is just a routine gathering of reservists. Only these specific soldiers are not really soldiers at all - all of them are residents of Arab-Muslim village of Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem, and all of them are volunteers in the Abu Ghosh rescue unit, commonly referred to as "Commando Abu Ghosh." The volunteer unit was created at 2002 by the IDF's Home Front, which provides the unit with training and tools. Today the unit numbers some 90 volunteers from the village who are willing to contribute their time and effort and to undergo strenuous and difficult training in order to become qualified rescuers. The unit includes, like all such units in the IDF, a medical team, mostly composed of volunteers who were trained by the Magen David Adom; electricians; heavy machinists; truck drivers and construction workers. They have their own support units and are coordinated with an emergency call-up system. For many years Abu Ghosh, famous for its food, stunning views and interesting cultural activities, including the recent annual Abu Ghosh Music Festival, has been viewed by many as a symbol of Jewish-Arab coexistence. Even during the most violent periods of the second intifada, picturesque Abu Gush's fine restaurants flourished and Israeli tourists never stopped coming. Many in the village view the creation of the Abu Ghosh rescue unit as a natural step, designed to strengthen the bond between the village and the state of Israel. "We are doing this in good faith, as volunteers, and we believe this unit will benefit not only the residents of Abu Ghosh, but also the whole country," says Hani Jaber, head of the unit. "Most of the volunteers are experienced professionals in various areas, such as construction, engineering, medicine etc. With the additional training that they receive from the Home Front, they will be able to deal efficiently with a crisis situation, such as an earthquake, building collapse and such." In addition to the 90 volunteers who've already been enlisted, there is already a long waiting list to join the unit in the future. The majority of the volunteers are young, most under 30. Ibrahim Abu Ghosh, a student at the Hebrew University, believes that this kind of service is essential for the community, which has always thought of itself as part of the State of Israel and is eager to make its contribution to life in the country. "Many people think that Abu Ghosh is all about humous and knafe [Arab traditional pastry], but we are not some recreation village, we are a part of Israeli society. It is good that people can volunteer and feel useful." He adds that he himself may join the unit, after he finishes his studies and finds a job. The battalion commander, Lt.-Col. Nir Neuman, is Jewish, as is the entire high-ranking command, but none of the men seem to mind and none seem to view the IDF as a future career. Yet, since the volunteers do wear IDF uniforms, does the establishment of this unit imply that soon men from Abu Ghosh will be recruited into the Israel Defense Forces as full soldiers, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities? Jaber explains that as Arab-Muslim citizens of Israel, the population of Abu Ghosh has never been in favor of mandatory recruitment. "We are Israelis, but we are also Arabs and Muslims. We do not wish to be obliged to join the army, since the issue might cause moral contradictions. However, we do want to benefit the society and reinforce our ties with the state. So we have chosen the most humane field for our unit to engage in - saving human lives. Our voluntary work is a prime example of Jewish and Arab coexistence and cooperation," he says. Yoram Lebron, commander of Jerusalem District of the Home Front, says that the issue of mandatory recruitment into the army is a political one and that the army therefore will not interfere in this issue. Instead, he says, the army has sought out a way for everyone to benefit. He notes, as an example, that although the members of the unit are volunteers, officials have reached an agreement with the Labor Ministry so that the men will receive compensation for their time away from work in training. The Abu Ghosh unit is relatively new, yet is already considered one of the IDF's more elite units, due to the high qualifications of its volunteers. "We are even considering training this unit for foreign missions, and I believe that all chances are that we will succeed in our vision," says Lebron, who speaks very highly of the unit and the initiative taken by residents of Abu Ghosh. "This is indeed a blessed initiative and I believe that the war in Lebanon showed very clearly that the rockets of Hezbollah do not differentiate between Arab and Jewish cities and houses. Therefore, there is a need for such units, and we hope that in the near future other Arab villages will be encouraged by this example set by Abu Ghosh and take after this model." Army sources told In Jerusalem that currently there are negotiations with an additional Arab village regarding establishment of another such unit in the near future. While there have been some low-key rumblings against the unit from nationalist groups in the village, over all, the entire village seems to be supportive and proud of the unit. "Commando Abu Ghosh" continues to be a unique example of good spirit and coexistence - rare enough commodities in our region. "I hope that we will never have to use our skills and that God will have Mercy on us. But if we do have to act - we are here to do our best," says unit commander, Hani Jaber.

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