Israel's conscription draft law draws Arab anger

Israeli reservist soldiers and parents whose children were killed during army service hold a mass demonstration in support of a new law to mandate universal conscription to the military. (AFP)

Israeli reservist soldiers and parents whose children were killed during army service hold a mass demonstration in support of a new law to mandate universal conscription to the military. (AFP)

But for 19-year-old Nadine, taking part in the country's civil service programme – an alternative to serving in the army – not only provides a salary but could "open many doors" in the future.

With the Jewish state poised to overhaul its draft law, Israel's Arab minority is mustering its forces to fight against plans to compel them, and the ultra-Orthodox community, to serve either in the military or perform some form of national service.

Until now, both sectors have largely been exempt.

With the current law governing conscription due to expire at midnight on Tuesday, the government has so far failed to agree on the wording of new legislation which has caused sharp disputes within Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition.

For Nadine, who declines to give her real name for fear of repercussions, the motivation is financial incentive now and employment possibilities later.

"It will open many doors to me in the future when I look for a job," she said.

'Serving my country'
Earning 850 shekels a month for working seven hours a day, six days a week, Nadine will also get a lump sum of around 14 000 shekels when she finishes her two years of service, as well as a certificate from the defence ministry.

"I think doing civil service will help me in the future, and at the end of the day, I am serving my country," says the teenager, who also has a brother serving in Israel's army.

A 20-year-old woman in the same programme at the neurosurgical department at Rambam hospital says that despite the criticism, she loves her job.

"I prefer to look at it from a different angle – I love helping people and I feel like I am doing something for society," said the woman, who would give her name only as Reem.

"I do 164 hours of national service a month and I am in favour of it because I live in this country and this has nothing to do with politics," she said.

Netanyahu's coalition government is locked in a dispute over the wording of legislation to replace the so-called Tal Law, which allowed thousands of ultra-Orthodox men to avoid the military service that is otherwise largely compulsory for all Israelis.

When the Tal Law expires at midnight, it will mean that all 18-year-old Israelis, including the ultra-Orthodox, will be compelled to enlist in the military, unless they are exempted by the defence ministry.

Israel's Arab youth have traditionally been exempted from service by means of an unspoken Israel policy.

But when the Parliament reconvenes in October after its summer break, attempts to revise the law to include Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, are likely to begin again in earnest.

'Burden of service'
"We are citizens of one state, and must all share the burden of its service," Netanyahu said, defending the need to update the law.

"Which burden does the state want us to share? The burden of occupation? The burden of the ethnic state – or the capitalist state?" wonders lawyer Ayman Odeh, who heads the Arab Coalition against national service.

"Am I partner in determining the burden? Or does the State of Israel determine that, and the Arab must serve? We are banned from determining 'the burden' and I'm required only to serve the state and the mentality that excludes Arabs," he charged.

For Nadim Nashef, director of the Haifa-based Arab youth organisation Baldna, there are many reasons for refusing civil service – the first of which is the link between national service and Israel's "security establishment".

Since 2007, Baldna has been running a campaign to fight against compulsory civil service among Arab youth.

"Whoever finishes civil service signs a paper indicating that in the case of a war, he will join the Israeli Home Front which is part of the Israeli army," Nashef explains.

"We also refuse it based on the link between rights and duties," he adds.

"The state is here to serve its citizen and not vice versa. Rights are non-negotiable."

A threat to Palestinian identity
Arab Israelis make up more than a fifth of the Israeli population, numbering around 1.3-million people. They are the descendants of Palestinians who remained in the Jewish state after the 1948 war that followed its creation.

Nashef says that compelling them to serve the Jewish state also raises other weighty issues.

"It also threatens our Palestinian identity," he says.

According to figures compiled by Baldna, 2 400 Arab youngsters are currently serving in national service programmes.

But if a law passes making it compulsory, it will affect an estimated 28 000 Arab youngsters who will turn 18 next year.

One of these is 17-year-old Wahrd Kayyal from Haifa, who vows he will not do civil service under any circumstances.

"I am not supposed to serve the State of Israel to receive my basic rights as a human being to work and to live with dignity," he said.

"I will not serve whatever the consequences.
Israel is not my country and our relationship is merely on paper." – AFP

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