Haifa, Israel – Orwa Saif, 18, followed in the footsteps of his three older brothers when he turned himself in for the first of several 20-day prison sentences that he will be required to serve as a result of his refusal to serve in Israel’s army.
Like all male Palestinian citizens of Israel from the Druze religious community, Saif, who comes from the Galilee village of Yanuh-Jat, is required to complete three years of military service. Yet, only days after graduating from high school, Saif made one of the most important decisions in his life.
“I refused obligatory service because I can’t raise a gun against my own people,” Saif told Al Jazeera. “I can’t raise a gun against any human. I don’t want to be a part of any oppression in any place at any time. I am against the army and its occupation.”
Saif joined a growing number of his community who are declaring themselves conscientious objectors and refusing to join Israel’s army, which for decades has occupied Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian lands in defiance of international law.
Omar Saad, a Druze youth who in October 2013 wrote a public refusal letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has completed seven 20-day prison terms so far.
These conscientious objectors find support from Palestinian human rights organisations in Israel, Arab political parties and new grassroots activist groups that campaign against military conscription and the further militarisation of Israeli society.
“Until now, there has never been a large movement refusing obligatory recruitment,” he added. “There were never organisations supporting the refuseniks in the past or political parties or national movements,” Saif explained. “All of these support refuseniks like me [today].”
On June 15, approximately 100 activists, mostly from the youth movement of Israel’s communist party, gathered in the historic Wadi al-Nisnas neighbourhood of Haifa, a city in central Israel, to march alongside Saif on his way to surrender himself at the local police station.
Though there was a heavy police presence, no clashes broke out as the marchers arrived at the police station, where a number of activists and local Palestinian politicians spoke about the importance of Saif’s refusal.
Despite the broad support among Palestinians in Israel, Saif explained that there is, nonetheless, pressure from within Druze society to serve in Israel’s military. Though no one in his immediate family completed military service, several relatives in his extended family have served.
“In my family there is both support and pressure,” he said. “I have a group of friends that are worried that this thing [refusing to serve in the army] will ruin my future. There are a lot of things that scare a person. And of course there is a bit of pressure from relatives of mine that have served in the army.”
Alaa Muhanna intentionally failed a mental aptitude test 15 years ago in order to avoid serving in Israel’s army.
Yet today, more and more are refusing publicly and for political reasons rather than seeking exemption for religious reasons or by intentionally failing the military’s aptitude test to receive an exemption, referred to as a Profile 21.
Muhanna, 33, a novelist and poet from the Galilee village of Peqiin, is a founding member of a new group of Palestinian youth in Israel who campaign against mandatory military conscription.
“Refuse – Your People Will Protect You” was established in March with the goal of encouraging Druze males to refuse military service.
Refuse is made up of approximately a dozen permanent members and provides moral and legal support for conscientious objectors who go public with their refusal. “Just three months after founding the group, we have three new refuseniks,” Muhanna told Al Jazeera.
On June 14, approximately 100 politicians, activists, community organisers and religious leaders attended an anti-conscription conference hosted by Refuse in Shefa Amro, a city in the Galilee region of the country’s north.
Just two days after graduating from high school, Refuse’s newest member Anan Shaheen, 18, told the conference that he is required to report for military service on August 6, but that he will instead refuse and turn himself in for imprisonment.
“Like any Druze male, I though the only path ahead of me was military service,” he said in his speech. “After seeing that the refusal movement is growing, I decided that I couldn’t stand at a checkpoint and stop Palestinians [from the West Bank] from entering their own country.”
Muhanna explained that the Druze sect is a religious community that is an integral part of both the Palestinian minority who are citizens of Israel and the broader Palestinian people.
Consisting of Muslims, Christians and Druze, there are an estimated 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, all of whom face dozens of discriminatory laws that limit their political expression and access to land and other state resources, according to Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Muhanna stressed that “this movement is not just about the Druze”.
Until today Israel wants the world to think that Druze requested to serve in the military.
Druze professor Qais Faro, who teaches at Haifa University, explained that Israel’s governmental and military policies since the country’s 1948 establishment have consistently been sculpted to maintain its control by sowing division among minority religious communities.
Speaking to the conference, Faro said: “Until today Israel wants the world to think that Druze requested to serve in the military.”
Druze mandatory enlistment dates back to a 1956 agreement between a handful of Druze leaders and the state.
However, Faro says, the majority of Druze were initially against military service at the time of the agreement, adding that there is a long history of political and religious leaders being punished, including imprisonment, for objecting to service.
Referring to the movement against conscription, Faro said that he is “happy to see for the first time an Arab movement against military service that includes all of the sects” which make up the Palestinian minority in Israel.
Despite the anti-conscription movement’s rapid growth, the majority of Druze remain loyal to the state.
A prominent Druze religious leader, Sheikh Muafaq Tarif, recently spoke out against groups promoting conscientious objection. “Like every society, Druze society too has extremist, subversive elements who try to stir up the youth, with one goal: To break the alliance between the Druze community and the State of Israel,” he told the website Times of Israel.
Refuse activists also accuse the Israeli military of pressuring the families of youngsters planning to opt out of military service.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Israel’s military spokesperson said: “The enlistment of Druze soldiers in the IDF has held steady at 82 percent for the last five years – an enlistment rate higher than the national average.”
Although the spokesperson declined to comment on Refuse’s accusations, he said: “Druze soldiers serve in all positions in the army including combat and technological units in significant numbers.”
Refuse has also faced problems from within the Palestinian community in Israel. The unity of the anti-conscription movement is threatened by a growing rift between the new group and an anti-military committee within Hadash, the Israeli communist party.
Maisan Hamdan, 23, a Haifa-based activist and founding member of Refuse, spoke to Al Jazeera at the June 14 anti-conscription conference in Shefa Amro.
“This is not a Druze cause,” Hamdan said. “Resisting conscription is a Palestinian Arab cause for Muslims, Christians and Druze alike. We stand against the sectarian division of Palestinians [in Israel] and elsewhere.”