David Miller
The Media Line
July 26, 2011 - 12:00am

Hanin Zoabi, a member of Israel’s parliament, was in the Galilee village of Musmus last week to address a group of teenagers about the importance of national service. But she wasn’t there to encourage them to take a year or two after high school to serve in schools and hospitals.

One of 14 Arab lawmakers in the Knesset, Zoabi is a determined fighter for the national rights of Palestinians who live inside the country’s 1967 borders against those in the West Bank. She was invited by the youth leadership of her Balad Party to urge young people not to volunteer.

"The premise of our lives here is that we are Palestinians in a state that defines itself as Jewish," Zoabi told the audience. "This is where the story begins. When I live in a Jewish state, this means I do not control my destiny … the state doesn’t represent me."

Zoabi’s appeal is part of a tug-of-war underway between Israeli authorities and the country’s Arab leadership over whether Arabs should be encouraged to volunteer a year or two of their lives in national service. But the debate is over much more than that: It cuts to the core of how Israeli Arabs see themselves – as an alienated and disaffected community in a Jewish state or as full and equal citizens in a democratic society.

By law, most Israelis finishing high school – men and women alike – serve in the army. Among those who don’t, mainly due to health or religious reasons, many choose national service as another way to serve the country. Arabs, who constitute roughly 20% of Israel’s population, have traditionally been exempt from military service so as not to put them in the position of fighting fellow Arabs. Until recently, they rarely entered national service either.

Khaled Anabtawi, 24, who heads a campaign to combat national service among Israeli Arabs for the Haifa-based youth organization Baladna, says he doesn’t make any distinction between serving the government as a conscript in the army or as a volunteer counselor in a youth program.

"The government says this is volunteering, but we say that it's service," Anabtawi told The Media Line.

The government began encouraging Arabs to join the national service during the second Intifada starting in 2000, he said. To soften its image, the government added the word "Civil" to the name of the National Service Directorate, the body that oversees the program.

The timing of the recruitment drive was problematic. National identity sentiment among Israel Arabs was growing amid the fighting between Israeli troops and their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank. The bulk of national service volunteers are Orthodox Jews, the most highly nationalistic segment of Israeli society. Indeed, the National-Civil Service Directorate is part of the Science and Technology Ministry, which is headed by Daniel Hershkowitz, a rabbi and member of the religious Habayit Hayehudi Party.

Nevertheless, the efforts to include Arabs have borne some fruit. According to the National-Civil Service Directorate, the number of Arab volunteers has increased nearly seven-fold over the past five years, from just 240 in 2006 to over 1,550 today. Some 60% work in education, and the rest in health (23%), the police (8%) and welfare (5%). Three quarters of the volunteers work in their own communities.

Haya Shmuel, director of Shlomit, a non-profit organization that recruits and manages national service volunteers, says demand from the schools exceeds the supply. She needs 400 placements to fill the growing demand of Arab youth.

Rawan Khoury, a young volunteer from the Christian Arab village of Fassouta in northern Israel, is now in her second year of national service in a hospital in the nearby Jewish town of Nahariya. She says she volunteered to improve her Hebrew and become better acquainted with Israeli society.

"My town is very small and people there speak only Arabic," she told The Media Line. "I decided to leave and experience life in the country before starting university in Haifa next year."

But as a Christian, Khoury says, she was under less pressure to refuse national service.

"Some were for and others against, but my father recommended that I go," she says. "There are seven volunteers from Fasoutta in my hospital, but I'm told that for Muslims it's more difficult to agree. I think it's important to contribute to society."

Baladna began campaigning against national service in 2007, mainly through on-line media campaigns and workshops in schools and youth movements. Some 4,000 Arab teenagers have attended Baladna's anti-service seminars since then, Anabtawi says.

Three short films produced in recent months by Baladna's Jawan Al-Safadi address the dilemmas facing Arab teens contemplating civil service. One clip features a phone conversation between two young women in which one challenges the claim that Arab citizens can only receive full civil rights if they serve the country. Another clip presents some arithmetic to demonstrate that national service stipends pay much less than a minimum-wage job.

"A job is much more profitable …and also much more honorable than serving Lieberman and his ilk,” concludes the film, referring to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a right-of-center politician who takes a tough line on minority rights for Arabs and the peace process with the Palestinians.

Volunteering for national service will undermine young people’s Palestinian identity, says Anabtawi. "They want to create an Israeli identity to erase the Palestinian one,” he says. “A recent poll showed that 80% of Arab volunteers are willing to accept Israel as a Jewish state."

But the main reason to oppose civil service, Anabtawi argues, is that it is linked to Israel's military establishment and could eventually lead to forced recruitment of Arabs to the Israeli Army.

"Volunteers receive the same benefits as discharged soldiers and a discharged soldier certificate, so it will be much easier for someone with such a document to join the army later," he claims.

But Marlen Rizk, national volunteer supervisor for the Association for Civic Equality, set up in 2007 as the first organization specifically for Arab volunteers, says the fear of forced military recruitment is ridiculous.

"The service is completely voluntary. Any volunteer can leave -- no questions asked," she told The Media Line.

She also dismisses the charge that national service pays so little that it isn’t worthwhile to join it. Volunteers get skills training, as well as a free year of university education, which will enhance their job prospects and integration into society, she says.

"I joined the organization out of conviction that this is a huge impetus to my people," she said. "In many Arab villages high school graduates have nothing to do, no employment prospects."

While the campaign against national service violates no law, the National-Civil Service Directorate is unhappy about it. Sar-Shalom Jerbi, its director-general, complained to Israel's attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, over a poster that Baladna published depicting a mousetrap to symbolize how volunteering entraps Arabs to the service of the Jewish state.

"Portraying the national service as a trap and the volunteers as mice constitutes a real danger of incitement," Jerbi wrote Weinstein. "At times the risk is of real physical harm."

Jerbi has also urged the Education Ministry to bar Aiman Uda, secretary-general of the predominantly Arab Hadash Party and head of the Action Committee against National Service, from lecturing in schools.

“I think we need to commend the volunteers who devote time and effort to their communities, society and the country,” Jerbi wrote. “At the very least, we should have those who are hostile and try to convince students not to join the national service program denied access to the schools.”

Rizk of the Association for Civic Equality says she often encounters harsh reactions when she goes to schools to pitch national service. Since high schools are controlled by regional councils rather than the Education Ministry, she explains, resistance to her recruitment efforts often come from above.
"Once, in a school in Shfaram [an Arab town near Haifa], students tore up my pamphlets and tread on them," she says. "There was a big mess."

Rizk contends that civil service not only doesn’t alienate Arabs from their own culture, it strengthens it.

"Through volunteering we connect to our people, to the elderly and children in our community," she said. "There’s nothing wrong with connecting to all segments of Jewish society, to become part of the decision-making process."


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