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Palestinian Christians resist Israeli conscription

Efforts by the Israel Defense Forces to recruit Christian Palestinian youths have raised the ire of Palestinians, who accuse the Orthodox Patriarchate of cooperating with Israel.
A conscript displays his identifying dog tag at the Tel Hashomer Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Recruitment Center near Tel Aviv March 14, 2010. About 500 Israeli men were drafted into the armoured corps on Sunday. Under Israeli law, Jewish men at the age of 18 are required to serve in the army for three years and women for two.   REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen (ISRAEL - Tags: MILITARY SOCIETY) - RTR2BN27

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Within the Green Line (the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948), there have been attempts to recruit young Christian Palestinian men into joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Israel began a conscription campaign and established a forum to recruit Christians in the Israeli military service in August 2012, led by Orthodox priest Gabriel Nadav, who enjoys the support of the Israeli government. He called for the recruitment of young Christians in the occupation’s army before Israel began to call on young men to join the service in April 2014.

Christians fear the calls for recruitment could turn into mandatory service, like when the youth of the Druze community were forced to join the IDF in the mid-1950s. They fear that whoever refuses to serve would end up in prison like Omar Saad, a Druze from the village of Maghar Galilee, who plays music in the Edward Said Institute. He was first arrested back in October 2012.

Saad told Al-Monitor that he refused military conscription in a letter addressed to Benjamin Netanyahu and then Defense Minister Ehud Barak, explaining the reasons behind his refusal. “Because I am a man of peace, I reject all forms of conscription and I refuse to give up my musical instrument to carry a rifle that may kill my brother, sister and the children of any other people. I play for joy and freedom. I play for the just peace based on putting an end to the settlements and the occupation of Palestine, establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of all prisoners and the return of displaced refugees to their homes. I refuse to obey this law that aims to create segregation and separation of the Arab Druze from their affiliation with the Palestinian Arabs,” he said.

For his refusal to join the IDF, Saad was arrested seven times. “For the first six times, I would be imprisoned for 20 days each time. However, the last time, I went to jail for 40 days. It was then that I got sick because of the prison’s conditions and the lack of medical care. I was suffering from hepatitis before the occupation authorities decided to exempt me from military service,” he noted.

The Israeli conscription attempts face vigorous resistance by political blocs and Christian religious authorities. The archbishop of Sebastia of the Greek Orthodox, Atallah Hanna, told Al-Monitor, “We as Christians are an integral part of the components of the Palestinian people. Based on our national, religious and moral faith, we refuse the recruitment of our children in an army that practices oppression and injustice.” He added, “The attempts to recruit Christians are rejected by us, and the ones who are OK with it are very few and do not represent the Christian or Palestinian community.”

Political parties do not hide their concerns about the goals that Israel seems to be seeking to achieve. Knesset Arab deputy Basil Ghattas told Al-Monitor that Israel aims to “create disorder among our people and divide it into sects, like they did with the Druze community before us, in virtue of a division policy that tears the social fabric apart and disrupts national unity.”

According to the Palestinian News and Info Agency, between 2008 and 2009, about 120,000 Druze were mainly concentrated in the northern parts of historical Palestine, in about 18 mountainous towns and villages. In 1956, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion issued a decision forcing the Druze to join the IDF. In 1959, Israel separated the Druze court from the Islamic Sharia courts, to strengthen the separation of the Druze from their Arab environment.

Christian officials and activists inside the Green Line are concerned about the impact of the growing sectarian strife in the Arab region and Israel's efforts to exploit it. Orthodox Central Council member Alif Sabbagh told Al-Monitor, “Israel is taking advantage of the conditions in the Middle East to push Christian youth to join its army, in light of the sectarian conflict in the region. It is trying to divide the Palestinians into Christians, Muslims and Druze and deal with us as sectarian minorities.”

Hanna noted that the division of Arab societies on the basis of sectarian and confessional affiliations is designed to distract the Arab population from its internal conflicts and struggles so that Israel can further its racial project in Palestine. “What is currently happening in the Arab world serves Israel, and what they describe as the Arab Spring is really an Israeli Spring in the Arab world,” he explained.

To express their wide rejection of conscription, some young Christians created a Facebook page called “Recruiting Arab Christians will not pass.” They also organized a sit-in for May 4 in Manger Square in Bethlehem against IDF conscription and the domination of what they called “dealers and thieves of the church, parish and fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre. The sit-in is also intended to protest Christian Bishop Gabriel Nadav and the suspicious relationship between the Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III and US and Israeli intelligence. They believe [Theophilos] does not deserve to be called a priest.”

Nadav is considered the “godfather” of recruiting Christians, whom Ghattas accused of “exploiting his religious position to promote conscription, which is forbidden.” Ghattas added, “We could not make the Orthodox Patriarchate prevent Nadav from carrying on what he is doing, which proves that the Patriarchate is somewhat involved in this issue.”

The range and activity of the Orthodox Christian community against the Orthodox Patriarchate is increasing with every such incident.

Sabbagh said that these priests are cooperating with the Israeli government and the judicial authorities by submitting complaints to the Israeli authorities against those who oppose the priests. Even so, what the priests have accomplished is very little compared to the increasing power of the resistance.

“The Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos must be pressured in order to stop the clergy's support of the Christian Orthodox youth recruitment instead of sponsoring priests Nadav and Dimitri Moussa and encouraging them to carry on with their actions,” Ghattas added.

According to Ghattas, around 1,700 young Christian men and women graduate from high school each year, but the number who join the occupation's military forces does not exceed 30 per year, while the number of Palestinian Christians within the Green Line (minus East Jerusalem) amounts to about 100,000 Palestinians.

On the resistance efforts, Ghattas noted that some political parties and community organizations are fighting back with propaganda and awareness campaigns in schools and clubs. They are also promoting the national identity among young Christians and revealing the true plans and objectives of recruitment, as well as forming a special committee to resist conscription.

The High Follow-Up Committee for Arab citizens of Israel within the Green Line held a national conference against IDF conscription in June 2014.

“We need to promote unity and national culture and establish a culture of belonging to the people and the cause through awareness and education. We should also reject sectarian rhetoric to confront Israel's attempts to divide us,” Hanna noted.

Despite the continuous Israeli conscription attempts, wide popular, religious and political rejection will continue as long there is cooperation between the affected parties.

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