In targeting Palestinian Christians for military service, Israel draws “sectarian” lines that some have compared to policies in effect in apartheid South Africa and French-ruled Algeria.
HAIFA, Israel — Ameer Ashqar’s grandparents were driven from Iqrit, a village in northern Galilee, during the 1948 fighting and expulsion of Palestinians that led to the establishment of Israel.
Just months after the country’s founding, Iqrit was captured and occupied by the newly-formed Israeli military. It was then depopulated and eventually demolished, turning its uniformly Christian residents into permanent refugees.
Because of his family’s history and his connection to his Palestinian heritage, Ashqar rejects Israel’s ongoing efforts to target the Palestinian Christian citizens of Israel for military service. “This isn’t a new thing… that they are trying to make us enroll in the army,” Ashqar, 19, told MintPress News. “I made up my mind a long time ago that I am against this plan.”
Ashqar isn’t alone, though, as recruitment efforts have also been roundly rejected by Palestinian groups in Israel.
A group of 18 Palestinian NGOs in Israel released a joint statement earlier this year decrying legislation that differentiates between Christian and Muslim citizens as a “colonial” and “sectarian” tactic.
“We vehemently reject all attempts by the Israeli government to fragment and segregate the Arab Palestinian society along sectarian lines of Christians and Muslims,” the statement read. “We assert that we were and will continue to be one people united – albeit with different religions and ideological affiliations – and an integral part of the Arab Palestinian people.”
It insists that Palestinians “have the right to define our national identity, which is based on our Arab culture, language, common history, and on the unity of our destiny and our future as a single original group that remains in its homeland.”
The statement also compares the legislation to policies in effect under South Africa’s apartheid regime and during the French colonial rule of Algeria.
Christians are a religious minority among the 1.7 million Palestinians who hold citizenship and live in villages, towns and cities across present-day Israel. The Arab minority — made up of those from the Muslim, Christian and Druze faiths — suffer from dozens of discriminatory laws that limit their access to state resources and stifle their political freedoms, according to Adalah, Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Ashqar is also suspicious of Israel’s intentions. “Israel is not trying to enroll us into the Israeli Defense Forces so much as to make us useful for the Zionist agenda,” he said.
“Fighting for our Palestinian identity”
Ashqar says Palestinian Christians have experienced the same suffering as Palestinian Muslims. After Ashqar’s grandparents were driven from Iqrit, they relocated to the nearby town of Kafr Yassif.
The majority Christian residents of that village became internally displaced persons, refugees who were displaced from their ancestral lands but remained inside the newborn state of Israel and were given citizenship.
Despite an Israeli court order allowing these refugees to return to Iqrit, the military used dynamite to demolish their homes on Christmas Day in 1951. All that was left standing was a church and a graveyard.
Growing up, Ashqar and his family regularly visited the village’s remains, and his grandfather used to tell him stories about life before 1948.
In August 2012, around a dozen youth — all of them descendants of refugees from Iqrit — decided not to wait any longer for Israel’s permission to return to their land. For nearly two years, they have camped in the village, where they regularly hold cultural activities, religious ceremonies and youth camps to educate young people about Palestinian heritage and history.
Explaining that it was the Israeli military that demolished their families homes and rendered them refugees in the first place, Ashqar believes their return exposes a contradiction between Israel’s plan to draft Christians into its military.
“Returning to Iqrit is not just the land,” he said. “It is about our culture and identity as Palestinians in Israel. We are fighting for our Palestinian identity in the land. We are the third generation of the Nakba. We are Palestinians and live without the fear of the 60s and 70s.”
Referring to the military recruitment of Christians, Ashqar said, “This isn’t about security or the need for more soldiers. This is divide-and-conquer for Israel’s benefit.”
“Fragment and segregate»
On Feb. 24, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a law differentiating between Christians and Muslims on a national employment committee. Yariv Levin, a senior Israeli lawmaker and leader of the government parliamentary coalition, sponsored the legislation a month earlier.
“My legislation will grant separate representation and treatment for the Christian public, which will be separated from the Muslim Arabs,” Levin told Israeli media outlets at the time. “This is an important historical move that could balance the State of Israel and connect us and the Christians, and I am careful not to call them Arabs, because they are not Arabs.”
“Being a Christian and an Arab is not a contradiction; it’s natural,” Ashqar countered.
A number of demonstrations and conferences have been held to protest the targeting of Christians. With the exception of those from the Druze religious community, who are obligated to serve in the military, Palestinian citizens of Israel are exempt from military service.
On May 17, hundreds gathered in Nazareth, the most populous Palestinian city in Israel, for a conference against military service. The speakers included representatives from political parties and youth movements as well as leaders of the Muslim, Christian and Druze religious communities.
Later that evening, thousands attended a street theater festival in Haifa, a coastal city in central Israel that is home to both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. The event included performances illustrating the violence of the ongoing presence of Israel’s military in the occupied Palestinian territories — the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
In 1956, religious leaders from the Druze community in Israel made a controversial agreement with the newly-founded state of Israel that required males to serve in the military.
Yet while Israel continues to intensify its efforts to recruit Christians for military service, growing numbers of Palestinian citizens of Israel from the Druze religious community have refused to serve in recent years.
During the fall of 2013, Refuse and Your People Will Protect You, a Haifa-based organization, was established to provide legal and moral support for conscientious objectors from the Druze community.
The group also raises awareness about militarization in Israeli society and how it is used to fragment the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Maisan Hamdan, 23, a founding member of the group, explains that Israel’s efforts to recruit Christians “happened before” in the Druze community.
“[Israeli authorities] are trying to do the same thing that they did to [Druze] in 1956,” she told MintPress. “They are trying to divide our society more and more by religion.”
“We believe that refusing military service is part of the broader Palestinian cause… and that when all Palestinians [in Israel] see it this way, that’s the beginning of liberation.”
Nonetheless, small numbers of Palestinian Christians have come out in support of serving in Israel’s military. The Nazareth-based priest Jibreel Nadaf has spearheaded the efforts to promote Christian military recruitment.
Ashqar is certain these efforts will eventually fail.
“It will not work in the end,” he concluded. “There is a much greater awareness nowadays then there was in the past [when Druze began to serve]. People are well-informed about Israel’s army, what it is and what it does to Palestinians. A lot of people will sacrifice their future in order to stand against the army.”