FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Palestinians in the Israeli Army

in Arrabeh

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.”

More articles by:

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jonathan-cook.net/

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail