Israel Pulse

Without conscription, will Israel's Arab citizens ever obtain equal rights?

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Article Summary
The relative contribution of Arab Israelis to the shaping of Israeli culture, economy and science is more significant than that of their Druze neighbors, yet Israeli Jewish society refuses to acknowledge it.

The Israeli Knesset's recent adoption of the Nationality Law, anchoring the Jewish character of the State of Israel, has provoked a number of protests, including a mass demonstration on Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Aug. 4. The demonstrators focused primarily on the law's discriminatory effect on the Druze community.

In a bid to quash protests against the law, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested a compromise to appease the Druze minority. The additional law he envisions would hold in “esteem the contribution of the Druze community to the State of Israel in building up the country, strengthening security and fashioning the face of Israeli society as an equal and varied society.”

A random visit to any construction site, however, reveals that the contribution of the Arab minority to building the state is no less significant. The same goes for a visit to hospital operating rooms and pharmacy counters. The Druze in Israel number 120,000, or some 1.6% of the population (in addition to 20,000 Druze residents on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights who are not Israeli citizens), an insignificant figure compared to the 1.7 million Muslim and Christian Arabs who constitute more than 20% of Israel’s population. Obviously, the relative contribution of Arab Israelis to the shaping of Israeli culture, economy and science is more significant than that of their Druze neighbors.

Despite this, the greater focus is the marked Druze contribution to “strengthening security.” In terms of military service, the Druze, and the far smaller Circassian minority, indeed have an advantage over the Arab community. Such service is what brought army generals, former heads of Mossad and Shin Bet, and tens of thousands of other protesters to Rabin Square, leaving the Arab community, whose members are not required to enlist, marginalized.

None of the laws that discriminate against Muslim and Christian Israelis who do not serve in the army or those that threaten human rights organizations has shocked Israeli society as has the Nationality Law, which undermines the Israeli ethos of “brothers in arms” and warrior comradery between Jewish and Druze soldiers. After 70 years after Israel’s founding and 51 years of military occupation, the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) recruitment office remains the main gateway to other realms of Israeli society. Politicians posted on this gate the populist slogan of “burden sharing,” calling on all citizens to enlist. The Arabs, like the ultra-Orthodox Jews, Druze women and conscientious objectors, have found themselves beyond the pale.

With the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Jewish leadership unofficially shut the IDF's gates to young Muslim citizens. The ruling Mapai decided that only Jews would be allowed to wear the uniform. In fact, for years, the IDF enlistment office practiced a policy of avoiding calling in Arab youths to enlist.

During a 1950 Knesset debate on the Defense Service Law, Arab Knesset member Tawfik Toubi of the Israel Communist Party asked, “Why is the government excluding all draft-age Arab citizens from military service, even though many display willingness to perform their duty as civilians who demand all their rights?” He described the exclusion of the Arabs from mandatory military service as “one of the most salient displays of racial discrimination in government policy, which runs counter to all attempts to acquire the friendship of the Arab multitudes.”

In October 1966, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, more or less admitted to Toubi that the martial law governing the country’s Arab-populated areas, which was only lifted that year, had undermined the basic principle of equality enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. He then, however, explained it away, citing the excuse that the Arabs do not serve in the military, unlike the Jews.

“Who is preventing them from being drafted? The government,” Toubi countered. According to minutes of the meeting published in an article by Zaki Shalom in the journal Israel Studies, Toubi, an Arab Christian, added, “You were Defense Minister for 10 years. You did not call [on the Arabs] to [serve] in the army.”

Toubi was likely referring to a 1954 order by then-Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon for the Defense Service Law to apply to all Israelis “in order to free the Arab population of a feeling of discrimination and out of a desire to equalize the rights and duties of all residents of the land,” thus overriding the policy practiced by the IDF enlistment office. Following Lavon's order, some 20,000 Israeli-Arabs showed up at recruitment centers.

A 1954 report that Lavon commissioned on the attitude of young Arabs called up for compulsory service stated, “[They] are expressing their satisfaction with being able to serve in the army and are interested in knowing in what branch they will serve. … Many asked to be assigned to the navy, to tanks. … They were attracted by being able to carry arms and wear a military uniform and by the upcoming opportunity to leave their boring routine lives in Arab society in towns and villages. Interestingly, those older than 20 were clearly very jealous and hopeful that their time would come to be called up, too.”

Lavon’s order was canceled two years later, in 1956.

Menachem Begin, then-leader of the right-wing Herut and subsequent prime minister, was critical of claims that Israeli Arabs did not deserve full equality since they did not serve in the military. In a 1962 Knesset speech, Begin said, “This is a strange claim. True. We decided not to obligate Arab residents, as distinguished from the Druze, to perform military service. But we decided this of our own free will.” He justified the Arab service exemption by citing a “moral reason” to the effect that should war break out with Israel’s Arab neighbors, its Arab citizens would face a “harsh test” of having to engage in armed combat with their people.

The Arab draft exemption was not, however, motivated by moral scruples, but rather by mistrust of the Arabs' loyalty to the state. The Muslim leadership was also unenthusiastic about young members of the community voluntarily enlisting in the army responsible for the Nakba, the “catastrophe” that befell them when Israel was established.

The Israeli military occupation of Arab lands that began in 1967, shortly after Israel lifted military rule over its Arab communities, gave further prominence to the issue of dual loyalty and of the “demographic demon,” the scenario in which Israel’s Arab population numerically overtakes the Jews.

Israel’s Arab citizens, despite the expropriation of their lands and budgetary discrimination against them, tend to be integrated into most areas of society. This is reflected by a significant increase in the number of those joining the security services, mostly the police force, under the Ministry of Public Security. Side by side with their Jewish and Druze colleagues, they confront fellow Arabs at violent anti-government demonstrations and foil terror attacks. In the first half of 2016, 1,420 Muslims applied to join the police, three times the number of applicants for all of 2015. That same year, Jamal Hakroush became the highest-ranking Muslim in the police force when he was appointed deputy police commissioner and female Arab officer Dunya Nasser was promoted to superintendent. In the Bedouin town of Rahat, the police launched a youth movement that offers activities for teens, such as riding patrols, and counsels them on various issues.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence pledges total social and political rights to all citizens, irrespective of their religion, race or sex. According to the newly adopted Nationality Law, life-saving Muslim doctors, irrespective of a patient’s religion, race or sex, and Muslim police officers safeguarding people's welfare, irrespective of individuals' religion, race or sex, do not deserve equal rights. After all, they are not members of the chosen people, nor have they forged a “blood covenant” with the Jews, unlike the Druze. They are nothing more than an issue of “demographics.”

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Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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