In recent weeks the activity of the forum to recruit Israeli Christians to the Israel Defense Forces has made headlines. Israeli Arab public figures, both Muslim and Christian, have spoken out against the increasing numbers of young Christians who are interested in enlisting and want to share the burden along with other minorities such as the Bedouin and Druze.
Despite the boycotts, the pressure and the threats issuing from, among others, Arab Knesset members and the Israeli Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, as well as fear that the trend could hurt Christian minorities in the Palestinian Authority and in Arab countries, the recent reports have led to an upsurge in young Arabs taking an interest in enlistment.
Many of the interested Israeli Arabs would like to do national service or volunteer near their hometowns. Fire fighting, working as medical assistants or helping social workers are among the most sought after roles for young Arabs.
Zeidan Baha, an 18-year-old Muslim from Jish, was born in Germany and later came to live with his parents in Israel. Baha was bothered by the inter-ethnic conflicts in Israel and dreamed of returning to Germany. At the age of 17 he was seriously injured in a car accident. His life was saved by the fire and rescue services, who arrived at the scene of the accident and extricated him from his vehicle.
From that day on his life changed and he decided he wanted to stay in Israel as well as to give back to those who had saved his life. After recovering, he decided that when he finished high school he would volunteer as a firefighter as part of national service. A year after his injury Baha joined the Acre fire station through the Shlomit Association which helps place volunteers in national service.
"I was saved thanks to the speed and quality of the firefighter unit," he says, "From my point of view, doing this national service is like coming full circle. And I know that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. My dream at present is to be a firefighter and to give back to the country."
Zeidan Baha is not alone. Another volunteer is Amal Abbas, a 23-year-old Muslim woman from Jadeidi-Makr who has been working as a medical secretary in the Maccabi Health Fund for the past seven months. She says one of the reasons she decided to do national service was to better integrate into the workforce.
"In high school I studied to be a medical secretary and I wanted to work at it," said Abbas. "But after I finished my studies, I looked for work for close to four years. I took odd jobs but was unable to find anything permanent. One day I was hospitalized and met a young Arab woman who was working there as part of her national service. I had never heard of national service, and she told me about the benefits, the rights you gain and the work experience she was gaining. I immediately asked my parents for permission, and they didn't have a problem with it."
Amal says that national service has helped her a lot personally. "Because of national service I learned Hebrew, I gained self-confidence, I made friends, and I learned that I am strong person whom people like. Today I feel that when I finish my year of service, I will be able to restart my life as an adult with a more promising future. I always recommend to women I meet that they volunteer for national service because it opens doors to life in Israel."
"A decade ago we could only speak of a few dozen volunteers from the Arab sector," says Shlomit Association Director Chaya Shmuel, "but in the last three years we are seeing a major upsurge in the desire to serve."
"Each year about 600 Arab youth, boys and girls, ask to work in various frameworks of national-civic service. In the last month, after efforts by the National-Civic Service Administration, Shlomit received an additional 50 service slots for young men and women in the Arab sector (a similar number of slots were received by other associations that place national service volunteers from the Arab sector). This is an important and respectable addition, but it still does not meet the great demand," Shmuel says.
"There is a positive trend of an increasing number of applicants from the Arab sector," says Shmuel. "Druze and Bedouin young people, young Muslims and others, who see national service as a launching pad for integrating into Israeli society. Ahead of our next year of activity, in September 2013, I expect a high demand, but at this stage there are not enough slots for everyone. I call on the Finance Ministry to take the demands and requests of those potential volunteers into consideration, to add positions and to allow equality of rights, as well as obligations, for those young people who volunteer."
Anet Haskia is a Muslim Israeli Arab with three children who have served in the IDF. Her two sons are combat soldiers and her daughter serves in the Education Corps. In an open letter this week she called for support of a law that allows demobilized IDF soldiers priority in access to state lands and housing in student dorms.
"I am an Arab Muslim and a proud Israeli," Haskia wrote. I am a daughter of the state of Israel, I was born here, I grew up here and I have no other land. As a social activist for the full integration of Israeli Arabs into the state of Israel and with an understanding that the state's Arabs are also its citizens, it is clear that serving in the IDF and serving in national-civic service is a basic component of the Israeli melting pot."
"My children get equal treatment in the army and they have not encountered racism or discrimination," Haskia told Israel Hayom. "When my eldest son was drafted, I spent many nights worrying and unable to sleep, but I felt good. When he came home on his first furlough in uniform, I cried. This is true integration into society, in the only country in the Middle East that provides genuine human and civil rights. These feelings returned when my daughter and other son were drafted."
According to Haskia, drafting Arabs into the army or national service, as well providing incentives with laws like the "contributor's law" and the benefits derived for those who carry the country's military and civil burden, provide a golden opportunity to change the reality and to bring about total equality between all populations. "Arab Knesset members are misleading Arab society and do not serve the main goal, which is to advance and integrate Israeli Arabs," Haskia says.