Nusseibah Khattib, a Muslim Israeli-Arab from the village of Barta’a, hasn’t had a good night’s sleep for weeks. Small wonder.

Receiving death threats on a regular basis from members of Fatah and Hamas, as well as the Islamic Movement in Israel, is hardly conducive to getting a good eight hours.

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What has united these traditionally feuding organizations in outrage is Khattib’s proposed initiative to include Arabs from east Jerusalem in civilian National Service, the alternative to the Israel Defense Forces. The National Service is voluntarily joined by citizens who are exempt from military service and allows them to serve the community in fields such as health, education, welfare, security or environmental protection.

Khattib, 30, is one of the few Israeli Arabs – excluding Druse citizens – who served in the IDF, having worked in the Search and Rescue Unit of the Home Front Command in 2001. In the past year he has been promoting the National Service program and, together with the Druse Association for Developing Foreign Relations, has helped more than 300 Arabs from northern Israel join its ranks, serving in various positions.

While military service is generally regarded as problematic for Arabs, Khattib does not see why they should not at least join the National Service, as for example, many Jewish religious girls do. “National Service is no different from being a member of the Knesset,” he says. “Israeli Arabs want the same rights and benefits as Jews, but they must also serve the country – we are Israeli citizens.”

Despite the existing problems between the Jewish and Arab sectors and the highly discussed discrimination toward Israeli Arabs, Khattib says that there is no other country he would rather live in. “Israel is a democracy with order – an element that is nonexistent in Arab countries.”

Khattib believes that most Israeli Arabs share this view, pointing to recent surveys conducted on the subject. The problem, he asserts, is that they don’t speak up often, and the media prefers to focus on the “shouting” ones who use anti-Israel rhetoric, such as Arab Knesset members and the Islamic Movement.

“They [Israeli-Arab politicians] do not cater to the needs of their people and are interested in making headlines. In appearing to support the Palestinian cause and railing against Israel, they are stirring up the situation.

It’s destructive,” he says ruefully.

But Khattib has decided to take it one step further and has shifted his focus towards the troubled waters of east Jerusalem, whose permanent residents can vote in municipal elections and are guaranteed the right to social security benefits and state health care but are not full citizens of Israel. As surprising as it may sound, he explains, a substantial grassroots demand exists.

Khattib says there are some 150 Arab girls and boys from east Jerusalem who have expressed interest in the project. In recent weeks, together with his colleagues, he has interviewed 30 of them for positions in the fields of health, education and sports.

The decision to focus on east Jerusalem might seem contentious, but it makes perfect sense to Khattib, who says, “Unfortunately, east Jerusalem has fallen prey to radical forces that aim at interfering with the delicate coexistence between Jews and Arabs.”

As he explains, Arab residents of Jerusalem keep close ties with the West Bank but actually feel that they don’t belong anywhere. As a result, Hamas and other religious movements such as the Islamic Movement have become very influential in the area.

“To combat further radicalization, it is crucial to counter these forces and provide local youth with constructive programs to get involved in,” he says.

As such, the National Service enlistment could also make a socioeconomic contribution in this troubled area. “Nurseries, schools and infrastructure projects are struggling under the heavy burden and could greatly benefit from local motivated individuals who are guided and funded by the state,” he points out.

Apart from the desired deradicalizing effect and the socioeconomic potential, Khattib highlights the fact that, like all others who do National Service, participants from east Jerusalem, upon completing their service, would be entitled to substantial benefits. These include various financial grants, admission to vocational courses and reductions on tuition fees, all of which would help to build a more functional society through the next generation.

ASSISTING KHATTIB in his efforts are Nisreen Abdel- Nabi, 26, and Firas Yusef, 25, journalists from east Jerusalem who also see the socioeconomic potential of the initiative. Rather bitterly, they discuss how, let down by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, residents of the area have become the region’s victims.

“People here are on nobody’s agenda,” Abdel-Nabi asserts, and speaks of teenagers hanging out aimlessly and using drugs.

To the suggestion that the initiative might be perceived as an illegitimate collaboration with the Israeli authorities, Yusef responds: “Of course, some may see it that way; but on the whole, people here don’t care about politics. They want a better life and order. Ultimately, if they see positive results from such a project, they will embrace it.”

Walking through a number of neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, Yusef points to various health and education institutions that could use additional personnel.

Looking at a schoolyard that is surrounded by piles of trash, he says, “This place has been associated with crime and drugs. The program might not solve all these problems, but it could definitely help.”

Sur Bahir, on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, is one of the most religious neighborhoods in the area and in recent years has been associated with terror activity and extremism. In July 2008 one of the neighborhood’s residents rammed a bulldozer into a bus and cars in central Jerusalem, leaving three people dead and more than 30 wounded. Earlier this year two other residents were arrested on suspicion of having collaborated with Hamas and planning terror attacks.

Against this backdrop, the opinions of Nidal Kamel, a respected local businessman, stand out. “Why not provide youth with some sort of positive occupation instead of having them turn to crime and drugs?” he asks. “Essentially, this initiative could help our very own community and might help repair the relations with Jews, which have greatly deteriorated since the outbreak of the second intifada,” he says.

Kamel’s sons Hussein, 20, and Walid, 17, say they would be happy to join National Service if it offered them a suitable position. Hussein, who enjoys football and swimming, says, “I just heard from Khattib about the idea to integrate guys from the area into local security positions, the fire brigade or as football coaches as a part of National Service. That’s a good idea. But no one has ever approached us before with such an initiative.

No one from the Jerusalem Municipality or elsewhere has discussed anything like that with us. If they did, I would do it.”

His uncle Mahmoud, a bus driver for a tour company, agrees. “We care about welfare, no matter which authority can provide it. The youth here simply feel they have nobody to help them.”

And that’s where Khattib’s struggle with bureaucracy begins. “Today, National Service in the Jerusalem area relies solely on the Jewish sector,” he says. “Inclusion of Arabs is not promoted, and Arab youth who are interested have no central body to turn to, especially one that is tailored to their needs.”

The Administration of National and Civic Service allocates placements to six authorized trusts.

Placements are allocated according to sectors and depend on winning tenders. The Jerusalem Municipality is one of those authorized trusts; but despite the large Arab population in the city, the number of placements for Arabs that it currently holds is very low. This has led to the paradoxical situation where Arabs from east Jerusalem are lining up for placements with National Service.

“The individuals I have interviewed were keen to start their service this autumn in health and educational institutions. But later I was told that there was no budget to absorb them. They keep calling me and asking when they could start already. It’s frustrating,” says Khattib with disappointment.

Meir Turgeman, of the opposition faction on the Jerusalem municipal council and supports Khattib’s efforts, says, “It is an excellent project – but there are obstacles, and that’s natural. At present, there are not many placements because a need has not arisen so far.

No one expected such interest from the Arab population.”

According to Sar-Shalom Jerby, the director of the Administration of National and Civic Service, there are plenty of placements for the Arab sector, but the Jerusalem Municipality has simply not won many tenders. “Each trust has to work to win the tenders, and I hope that the municipality will make the right efforts to satisfy the demand in the area,” he says.

BUREAUCRACY IS one thing, but politics is quite another.

Despite the acceptance and interest of some Arabs in the initiative, many individuals are careful not to openly support Khattib, and a number of leading Arab political figures who had previously expressed a sympathetic view are now refusing to speak up. Even Zuhir Hamdan, the mukhtar of Sur Bahir, who admits that most Arabs in east Jerusalem would prefer to remain under Israeli authority, is cautious not to sound too supportive of the project. He says, “I’m not against it, but it might be a bit premature. Local Arabs first want to receive services from the municipality and want to see things such as house demolitions stopped, so [joining] National Service might be taking it a step too far.”

Others simply oppose the initiative, to say the least. The situation is putting Khattib in an invidious position, and it is no surprise that he has now started to receive death threats over the phone and in the Arab media. For example, a recent article in the online Israeli- Arab magazine Bokra exposed Khattib and included hostile statements from leading figures in the local Arab leadership. The Jerusalem-based Mufti Ikrema Sabri was quoted as saying, “National and military service in Israel is against Islam. This man must be stopped; his blood is permitted” (an expression that gives legitimacy to kill with impunity).

Mustafa Kablawi, the author of the article, explains, “As Arabs, be it from Nazareth, Jerusalem or elsewhere, this project is unacceptable to us. In any case, it is much better for these people to get a job with a decent salary rather than join Israel’s National Service. Everything that happens in Israel is political, and I am against it.”

In the past few weeks, threats over the phone from groups in the Umm el-Fahm area directed at Khattib and his family have made him relocate to Jerusalem.

When asked about such rabble-rousing, Khattib sighs and says, “It’s a pity that these people are working against the interests of their own community. National Service should be seen as an empowering measure for the Arab community, not the other way around. Regardless of the political situation between Jews and Arabs, it is necessary to normalize the relationship between the peoples.”

Despite all these barriers, Khattib is optimistic and hopes that the project will receive further backing from the Israeli authorities, as well as financial support. Above all, he hopes it will promote a change of mindset among Israeli Arabs and allow for a more positive Israeli-Arab leadership to emerge.

“We live in this country together, so we must take care of it together. It’s the only choice we have,” Khattib says with a smile.

The next step would be to organize a large-scale conference of Israeli-Arab youth to raise their awareness of the National Service project. Eventually, Khattib would like to see the establishment of a central body that would coordinate the subject of National Service for the Arab sector.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he admits, “but I’ve fastened my seat belt and I’m prepared for the bumpy ride.”
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