NAZARETH: Israel's plan to overhaul its military draft has veered into turbulent new territory with the government's abrupt proposal to mobilize the country's Arab minority for civilian national service.
Israeli Arabs would be asked to perform community service and would not be required to join the army. But the concept of any compulsory government service has stirred a hot debate within the Arab community over its place in the Jewish state, along with fierce resentment over being asked to serve a country that often treats its Arabs as second-class citizens.
The proposal has also created an uproar within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition, because not all Arabs would be required to serve.
"The state has never sat down with us to discuss the entire array of issues (we have), including our rights and historical rights," said Ayman Odeh, point man on the issue for the influential Israeli Arab umbrella group, the High Follow-up Committee for Arab citizens.
"If the government imposes this on us without sitting down with us, without consultation, without dialogue, we will not obey this law," he said. No Israeli Arab sat on the parliamentary panel crafting recommendations for the new draft bill.
Israeli Arabs are ethnic Palestinians and descendants of those who remained inside Israel's borders after the Jewish state was established in 1948. They make up 20 percent of Israel's 7.8 million people and are largely exempt from the military, though several thousand do serve or perform voluntary community service.
The calls to conscript Arabs into national service are part of a broader overhaul of Israel's draft law, which the Supreme Court has ordered amended by Aug. 1. The original aim was to end sweeping exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews, but Netanyahu says national service is a burden that must be shared by all, including Israeli Arabs. Israeli men are required to serve three years in the military, and Israeli women about two years.
The parliamentary committee had expected to release its recommendations for a new draft bill next week. But the panel unleashed a political storm on Thursday when it said it planned to require 6,000 Arabs to perform community service by 2016.
This year, 2,400 Arabs have volunteered for such service, of an estimated 60,000 who fall within the 18 to 22 age group that the national service program would target. Many Israeli Jews think all Arabs, like all Jews, should be compelled to serve.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu Party and another smaller faction quit the committee in protest because Arab service would not be mandatory.
Arab lawmakers, on the other hand, were angry that the proposal had a compulsory element at all.
"Arabs don't have to be the victims of the war of the Jews between Lieberman and Netanyahu," said Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi of the Raam-Taal Party.
Not all Israeli Arabs oppose community service, seeing it as a welcome opportunity to help people, expand horizons and improve their Hebrew. Like Jews of draft age who cannot or will not join the military, they would be able to serve in hospitals, schools and other social service settings as a civilian alternative.
But the controversy over the proposal reflects a fierce debate within the Arab community over whether to seek to belong to the Jewish state or be on the outside.
Israeli Arabs have always been in a precarious position, at once citizens of Israel and Palestinians identifying with the statehood aspirations of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Although they enjoy equal rights on paper, Israeli Arab communities receive far less government funding for schools and public services, and Arabs often face bias in employment and housing.
But many in the community want the government to narrow the gaps between Arabs and Jews before compelling Arabs to serve.
"Why should I do something for a state that doesn't give me everything?" asked Elias Alaa, a 19-year-old aspiring doctor in Nazareth.
His home, the biblical city of 60,000 where tradition says Jesus spent his childhood, has suffered from years of neglect. Like other Arab towns and villages, Israel's largest Arab city is burdened by overcrowding, its potential hindered by rundown infrastructure.
"For years, we've been demanding equal rights. No committee was set up to discuss the equal distribution of rights," said Amal Elsana Alh'jooj, an Arab activist. "So now, when talking about the burden, why are they remembering the Arabs all of a sudden?"Critics also worry that compulsory community service could dilute the Israeli Arab community's Palestinian identity and open the door toward mandatory service in a military that fights other Arabs.
Some Arab leaders say they would support a volunteer program if the administration and budget were turned over to the Arab community, which would tailor it to Arab culture and the Palestinian national identity. They don't want Arab youths, many of whom already pepper their Arabic with Hebrew phrases and dress like Jewish Israelis, identifying any more strongly with the Jewish state.
"We insist that this remain volunteer," said lawmaker Ibrahem Sarsur of the United Arab Party. "We don't want this to be a stepping stone to military service. If the government insists on approving compulsory service, we will oppose it fiercely, even if we have to go to jail."
Israeli defense officials have no known plans to draft all Arabs.
Historically, Israel has exempted most of its Arab citizens from the military, in part because of distrust and in part because compulsory service could force Israeli Arabs into a position of divided loyalty.
The main exceptions are the Druze, an offshoot of Islam, whose leaders agreed to the draft decades ago. The military does not release conscription figures but says thousands of Druze serve each year. Hundreds of Bedouin, Christians and Muslims also volunteer, mostly in the hope of improving their lot in Israeli society.
In theory, at least, community service would entitle Israeli Arabs to the same bonuses a discharged Jewish soldier enjoys: cash grants, discounted mortgages, preferential treatment for state jobs and access to financial aid and dormitories at Israeli universities.
But Arab leaders says the Druze loyalty to the state has not paid off: Druze income, unemployment and educational levels are on a par with that of other Israeli Arabs, and their villages do not enjoy the same state funding that Jewish areas do.
"We don't believe compulsory civilian service can close the gaps between the Jewish and Arab sectors in all walks of life because we have the example of the Druze," Sarsur said.