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Yussef Saluta, an Israeli Arab soldier from the Desert Reconnaissance battalion takes part in a drill near Kissufim in southern Israel .(Photo by: REUTERS)
Arab IDF soldier: 'I love this country and want to contribute'
Out of the 175,000 active IDF soldiers are several hundred Arab Israelis who have chosen to serve.
A battalion of soldiers crawls across the desert sand with assault rifles cocked. It's a routine exercise, but these are no ordinary troops - they are Arabs who have chosen to fight for the Jewish state.

While the vast majority of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are Jews - and nearly all their conflicts have been against Arab nations - a trickle of Israeli Arabs volunteer for the army.

Most are Beduin, a community native to southern Israel. But some are other Arab citizens of Israel, the descendants of Arabs who remained in Israel during and after the 1948 War of Independence.

"Why did I decide to enlist?" asks Sergeant Yusef Salutta, a 20-year-old Arab from the north of Israel who serves with the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion. The army rarely grants journalists access to the unit.

"Because I'm from this country and I love the country and I want to contribute," he said. "Everyone should enlist, anybody who lives here should enlist."

The military conscripts young Jewish men and women, but not Arabs. It does not report exact numbers of Arab volunteers, but officials say there are several hundred among the 175,000 active personnel.

A silver Star of David necklace hung around Salutta's neck, and he chatted with fellow-soldiers in Hebrew.

Still, some Israeli Arabs see volunteering for the military as betrayal.

"This phenomenon, we totally reject it," said Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli-Arab member of parliament.

"What could go through a person's mind when he serves against his people? We try to educate people that this is not the way."

Volunteers say their families are supportive, and that they are prepared to take criticism.

"I don't care about them," said Salutta. "I need to be part of the country, to be like everybody else."

His friend, 20 year old Sergeant Saleh Khalil, also from a village up north, said his contribution to the army may help his future.

"I enlisted in order to contribute to the country, because I live in this country. The country helps us and I will have a good future," Khalil said.

The head of the IDF Minorities Unit, Colonel Wajdi Sarhan, said some Israeli-Arabs saw service as a way to improve their chances in life.

"(It) can get easier when you hold an Israeli soldier or reservist ID card," said Sarhan. "To be a soldier in the army, it's actually an identity certificate of Israeli-ness, which can help integration."

He said some recruits faced threats and harassment at home from fellow Israeli-Arabs. In some cases, they are allowed to travel to and from military duty out of uniform.

When it comes to Israel's decades-old conflict with Palestinians, there is no question - if they are required to fight, they must.

"Anyone who decided to be a combat soldier in such a unit took this into consideration in advance," said Sarhan.
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