Jerusalem – The Israeli government is engaging in “sectarian recruitment” for military service among Druze and Christian minority sects of Palestinian citizens of Israel, according to a recent report by Haifa-based non-governmental organisation Baladna Association for Arab Youth.
The report says that Israel is using the disadvantaged economic situation of Druze communities and distributing “aggressively sectarian literature” to Christian youth.
This, coupled with laws defining members of these groups by religious, and not ethnic labels, is creating an identity “that is separate from their Arab Palestinian identity”.
“Enhancing sectarianism is in the interest of Israel’s divide and rule policies towards the ethnic Palestinian Arab population,” Nadim Nashif, director of Baladna, told Al Jazeera.
Arab Palestinians, including Muslims, Christians, and Druze, make up approximately 21 percent of Israel’s eight million citizens.
“It’s much easier for Israel to deal with several smaller groups, and play them against each other, than to deal with one united Palestinian population,” Nashif continued.
Druze citizens of Israel, who numbered more than 131,000 in 2012, are members of a religious sect that branched away from Ismaili Shia Islam.
A few Druze Palestinians even fought alongside Zionist extremist militias during the 1948 ethnic cleansing campaign that forcibly removed the native Palestinian population from their homes for the purposes of creating a Jewish-majority state of Israel.
The Palestinians refer to this mass killing and expulsion campaign as al-Nakba or “catastrophe”. These same Zionist extremist forces would go on to form the official Israeli army.
Nashif says this shows Israel’s long history of sowing division in Palestinian society for its advantage: “Since the creation of Israel, Druze [have] had a separate curriculum in schools and religious institutions from the rest of the Palestinian population. Their separate identity didn’t happen by coincidence.”
In 1956, Israeli authorities struck a deal with certain Druze community leaders that made serving in the Israeli army compulsory for Druze men, in exchange for promised inclusion in Israeli society and economic advantages for their community.
Although roughly 80 percent of Druze serve in the Israeli army, a sizeable over-representation that is higher than the 75 percent service rate of Israeli Jews, poverty is still a huge problem in their communities.
Integration, meanwhile, even within the army, remains out of reach. It wasn’t until May 2015 that the Israeli army decided to end its Druze-only “Battalion of the Sword”.
Due to these and other forms of discrimination, the Druze have also had a history of refusing to serve dating back to the 1972 creation of the Druze Initiative Committee, which continues to encourage and support Druze conscientious objectors.
In 2013, a new initiative called Refuse, Your People Will Protect You was founded to fight conscription among young Druze.
“Anti-conscription is not about Druze or Christians – it’s about all Palestinians,” Maisan Hamdan, one of the founders and spokespeople of Refuse, told Al Jazeera. “Military service has only benefited a small section of the Druze.”
At the end of the day, if you aren't Jewish, you aren't equal. Obviously, this is not a democracy, and it's not something that should be allowed.
In Isfiya, a Druze village in the north of present-day Israel, with a population of 11,600 as of 2013, “half of the homes there do not have [Israeli] permits”, and are therefore considered eligible for demolition under Israel’s discriminatory zoning laws.
Additionally, 200 houses “are without electricity”, Hamdan said of her hometown.
Baladna asserts that 65 percent of the lands of the Druze community, which is largely agrarian, has been confiscated by Israel since its establishment.
A 2007 study published by Social Work and Society International Online Journal reported that the Druze belonged to the poorest sector of Israeli society. After years of broken promises, and efforts of groups supporting conscientious objection to Israeli army service, “there is definitely an increase in the number of Druze who refuse military service. I don’t believe the 80 percent figure [provided by the Israeli military]; I know it’s propaganda”, Hamdan concluded.
The Baladna report goes on to focus on recent Israeli efforts to recruit members of the Palestinian Christian minority, which numbers about 130,000.
Unlike the Druze, Christian military service is not compulsory, but they may serve if they choose.
In 2012, Israel ramped up efforts to have Christian Palestinians volunteer by sending letters to scouting groups, with the hope of “inciting fear among [young Palestinian Christians] of their Muslim neighbour”, the report says.
Then, in October 2014, the Israeli government began recognising Palestinian Christian citizens of Israel as “Aramaic-Christian”, a separate, non-Arab ethnic group.
Sectarian tactics are employed not only by the Israeli state, but also members of the Christian community itself. The most famous example is that of Father Gabriel Nadaf, an Orthodox priest from Nazareth.
Nadaf advocates for Christians to join the Israeli army to achieve better integration into Israeli society. He frequently travels around the world, promoting Israel as the sole protector of Christians in the Middle East. His Facebook page features photos of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and pro-Israel slogans.
The controversial priest has faced criticism from many sections of Palestinian-Israeli society. In 2014, he was removed from his position as priest of Nazareth due to his position on Christians serving in the Israeli army.
This hasn’t stopped Nadaf and other groups from continuing to push for Christian service.
Al Jazeera spoke with Pini Barzel, spokesman for the newly founded Premier Organisation for Integrating Christian and Aramaic Community in Israel (POICA). “We contact [Christians] early, when they are 15 and 16 years old. We support them and help them with enlisting, if they want,” Barzel said.
POICA then observes Christians, helping them through their service and assisting them in finding a job after they “complete their mission”.
Barzel says that all army positions are open to Christians, and was happy to say that “a Christian pilot will soon be serving in the Israeli air force”, a first in the country’s 67-year history.
Although POICA is a newcomer to the recruitment drive, its spokesman says they are “well-connected” and have had great success in their four-month tenure: “We want to integrate these Christians. They need to assimilate, to be part of our society,” Barzel concluded.
When asked for comment on the first Christian pilot to serve in Israeli army, an Israeli military spokesperson told Al Jazeera there “are hundreds of Arab Christians who serve in a variety of military units throughout the [army]”. He declined to comment directly on the Baladna report.
“There are only between 100-200 Christians serving in the army. It means nothing for the military or security forces. The only significance is for the Israeli propaganda machine,” Nashif, the director of Baladna, charged, “but their efforts” in separating Druze and Christians from their Palestinian identity “have a significantly negative impact on Palestinian society”.
Nashif is fervently against the idea of integration into Israeli society: “What it means is being a second-class citizen in a Jewish state,” he said.
There are currently 50 discriminatory laws affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel, according to Haifa-based Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel.
“At the end of the day, if you aren’t Jewish, you aren’t equal. Imagine if the US defined itself as a Protestant state, excluding all others. Obviously, this is not a democracy, and it’s not something that should be allowed,” Nashif told Al Jazeera.
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