Demands from Israel’s chief commander this month that all Israeli citizens should be required to perform national service has turned the spotlight on a rarely discussed group of soldiers: members of Israel’s Palestinian minority.
Though no official statistics are available, an estimated 3,000 of Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens have broken one of their society’s biggest taboos and are currently serving, often as combat troops on the front line of the conflict with their Palestinian kin, in the occupied territories.
These Palestinians — nearly a fifth of Israel’s population — are the descendants of Palestinians who managed to avoid being expelled when the Jewish state was established in 1948. Unlike Palestinians in the occupied territories, who are ineligible to serve in the armed forces, they have Israeli citizenship.
In calling for mandatory national service, Gen Gabi Ashkenazi observed that those Israelis who refused to serve could not expect “civil equality”.
His comment echoed those of politicians who have been calling on Israel’s Palestinian minority to prove its loyalty in the wake of the winter attack on Gaza, in which some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians. Hundreds of Palestinian citizens were arrested for participating in protests during the operation.
Israel’s education minister, Gideon Saar, announced this summer that school budgets will in future be based on the number of pupils who enlist in the army or agree to do an alternative civilian programme of national service.
Although most Palestinian citizens oppose their rights being conditional on national service, a small group of Palestinians appears more open to the idea.
S, who spent two years in the army patrolling the borders to prevent Palestinian “infiltration” at the start of the second intifada, agreed to talk to The National on condition of strict anonymity.
He believes it is reasonable for the state to connect citizenship rights to military service: “After all, we are citizens of this country. True, we’re also Arabs but this is our state and there is no way we can avoid that.”
Asked if he felt any conflict between being a Palestinian and serving the Israeli army, he replied: “Sure, and it’s for that reason I believe strongly that Israel should be pursuing peace.”
Soldiers like S are extremely wary of speaking publicly, as Rhoda Kanaaneh, a Middle East expert at New York University, discovered when she began the first study of the group a decade ago. Her findings were published this year as a book, Surrounded, published by Stanford University Press.
She interviewed 72 Palestinian soldiers and policemen, as well as three women, whose trust had to be won slowly by intermediaries, including relatives, former classmates and friends. Many more, however, refused to talk, and those who did required anonymity and would often “just give yes-no answers”.
Dr Kanaaneh, who was raised in the Palestinian village of Arrabeh in northern Israel before her move to the US, said none of the soldiers was prepared to go into detail about what they did during their service. She suspects that this reflects in large part feelings of shame associated with their role enforcing the occupation.
Participating in the Israeli army is regarded by many in the minority as tantamount to treason, given that Israel is still engaged in a war against the wider Palestinian people and neighbouring Arab states.
S was quick to justify his time in the army, saying he had worked hard to treat the Palestinians well, sharing sweets and his food rations with local children.
Although Palestinian soldiers are excluded from the elite combat units, they have traditionally carried out some of the army’s most dangerous work and been stationed in some of the toughest locations.
Bedouin soldiers, for example, who are usually recruited as trackers, have to search for mines and booby-traps. Last year, a 28-year-old Bedouin man was blown up by a roadside bomb along the perimeter fence around Gaza as he went ahead of soldiers from the Givati brigade. Unlike Jewish soldiers killed in action, his family did not want his name published.
It is also certain that Palestinian soldiers were among the troops involved in the ground assault in Gaza, though none are likely to admit publicly to participating.
Most Israeli Jews, apart from those who dedicate themselves to religious study, are conscripted — three years for men and two years for women — when they leave school. Men continue to do a month of reserve duty each year until their 40s.
The decision to exempt Palestinian citizens from military service was taken at the state’s creation, said Dr Kanaaneh. Then, as now, the authorities were worried about arming on a large scale a potentially hostile Palestinian minority.
The only exception was the small Druze community, today numbering about 100,000, whose leaders agreed in the 1950s to their sons’ conscription.
Nonetheless, a small number of Palestinian citizens from the country’s Muslim and Christian communities have chosen to join the army. Dr Kanaaneh says the figure of 3,000 is her best estimate after many failed attempts to get the military to provide precise numbers.
She offers a posssible reason why.
“The statistic people would really like to have is the ratio of deaths in service to the number of soldiers from each community. For example, there are claims that the Druze have a higher casualty rate than Jewish soldiers because they are sent on more dangerous operations. If such a statistic were confirmed, it would be powerful one and maybe that’s why they want to make sure it doesn’t get out.”
“Minority soldiers”, as the state refers to them, mainly came to public notice during the second intifada when they were reported killing Palestinians or foreigners in dubious circumstances.
The most high profile cases are Taysir Hayb, a Bedouin soldier who shot dead the British activist Tom Hurndall in Gaza in 2003; and a high-ranking Druze officer, known only as Captain R, who was put on trial after junior soldiers revealed he had fired many bullets into a 13-year-old girl in Gaza in 2004.
This has encouraged a view that Palestinian soldiers are the “bad apples” in the army. Dr Kanaaneh is unpersuaded.
“My impression — and that of the Palestinian soldiers too — was that they were being used to set an example and to show that rules were enforced. In other cases where Jewish soldiers were suspected of using brutality, inquiries were made but things were smoothed over and nothing came of it.”
She notes that Sgt Hayb, who received an eight-year jail term, was the first soldier to be given a lengthy sentence for an intifada-related killing since the 1980s.
There has also been little attempt to integrate Palestinian soldiers, Dr Kanaaneh said. Segregation between Israel’s Palestinian and Jewish soldiers was strictly enforced until the 1970s, and is still the norm. In addition, the air force and elite combat units continue to exclude Palestinian soldiers.
Dr Kanaaneh said the refusal to allow even one Palestinian citizen to become an air force pilot illustrates the army’s continuing view that these volunteers cannot be trusted. “The fear,” she said, “is that a pilot can make independent decisions and wreak quite a bit of damage, unlike a soldier in a combat unit.”
Incorporating a small number of Palestinian soldiers into the army is good public relations for Israel, said Dr Kanaaneh, but arming most Palestinian young men is not something Israel wants.
Equally she regards as disingenuous the comments of Gen Ashkenazi, and similar ones from Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, linking civic equality to national service, typically involving volunteer work in schools and state institutions.
“National service is not as valued as military service in Israeli society — it is very clearly regarded as inferior service. So the idea that performing national service will make you equal to Jewish citizens who do military service is fundamentally a flawed logic.”
A significant proportion of Palestinian soldiers, she said, justify their decision to join by claiming that it is the best way both to overcome the institutional discrimination they face as members of the Palestinian minority and to gain some of the material rewards reserved for soldiers.
Many rights and benefits in Israel are tied to military service and therefore claimed mostly by the Jewish population, including a wide variety of jobs, entitlement to state-controlled land and economic privileges such as cheap loans, government allowances and tax breaks. The noted Israeli jurist David Kretzmer has called this a policy of “covert discrimination” against the Palestinian minority.
Certainly S, aged 29 and married with two children, said the chief reason he joined was to receive benefits such as higher child allowance, a lump sum on his release from the army and, most importantly, a heavily discounted parcel of land on which to build a home.
In Palestinian communities, where most of the land has been confiscated by the state and where new houses are often classified as illegal and subject to demolition, the offer of land is a powerful incentive.
Dr Kanaaneh points out that these financial perks and the possiblity of a later career in “security jobs” such as the police force or as a prison warden are attractions for young men who often struggle to find work.
But, while there are benefits that individual soldiers can gain, Dr Kanaaneh says they are often nullified by larger discriminatory policies, such as house demolitions, directed towards the minority as a whole or against specific communities like the Bedouin. There have been several reports of former Bedouin soldiers having their homes destroyed by the state.
Equally, says Dr Kanaaneh, it is apparent to even the casual visitor to Druze villages in Israel that they suffer from the same overcrowding and lack of infrastructure common to other Palestinian communities, despite conscription among the Druze.
Even at the individual level, she adds, it is a gamble whether the connections made during army service help further a Palestinian soldier’s career and opportunities after he is demobiliised.
A comment she heard from several soldiers was: “Once your uniform is off, you’re a dirty Arab again.”
Dr Kanaaneh is also dismissive of the view that military service allows Palestinian soldiers to integrate fully into Israeli society.
“A surprising number I interviewed tried to compare themselves to Muslim-Americans or African-Americans serving in the US military. They said that through army service they expected to become Israeli like other Israelis.”
Dr Kanaaneh says this promise of integration never materialises. In her book she reaches a harsh conclusion: “In the end, the military, like all other [Israeli] state institutions, is a tool the dominant majority wields to preserve Jewish privilege.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.