Israeli Arabs debate compulsory national service

As Israel’s controversial Tal Law, which effectively exempts the ultra-Orthodox from military service, nears its expiration date, the country’s new unity government has pledged to implement compulsory service for all Israelis — including not just the ultra-Orthodox, but Arab citizens as well.

“By the end of July we will pass legislation that will distribute the burden equally” without pitting the various sectors of society against one another, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said May 13 during the first Cabinet meeting since Kadima joined Israel’s ruling coalition.

If passed, the new legislation would require national service for Arab citizens for the first time. And that’s prompting pushback from the Arab sector.

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi (United Arab List-Taal) has warned that forcing Arabs to serve “will be a serious mistake.”  Instead, he said,  “it would be better to help integrate Arabs by creating jobs and facilitating employment.”

In recent years, the number of Arabs volunteering for national service has grown. The Science Ministry, which oversees the program, says, “every year, Bedouin, Druze, Muslims, Christians and Cercassians take part in national service all over Israel, mostly in Arab communities.”

According to the ministry, 2,400 Arabs ages 18-24 volunteer for national service in the welfare, health and education fields. Fifteen percent serve in Arab communities, and the rest in the general population. Some volunteers endure threats for serving.

Ninety percent of the volunteers are female, the ministry says.

Naal Zoabi, principal of the elementary school in the Arab village of Tamra, encourages national service. “From a moral point of view, we as citizens have to make an effort to integrate into society. It’s easier to achieve (things) when we make a contribution to the state and to the community.”

Dallal Abada, a resident of the Jezreel Valley, has been a national service coordinator in her region for two years. “It’s going well and there’s a large demand,” she says. “We currently have 125 volunteers from all the Arab villages in the north, and 70 young people have already signed up for next year — and this number will grow.”

Abada adds: “Many people opposed national service, but when they understood what it was they changed their mind. They just had incorrect information about our project.”

Nevertheless, Abada does not support a bill that would force Arabs to serve. “I prefer national service to remain a choice. … If the law passes, the opposition will grow.”