Behind the Headlines New Faces in the IDF

There has been significant increase in the number of Israeli Arabs volunteering and being accepted to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, following a recent change in IDF policy regarding military service by Arab youth, according to a report by the Government Press Office.

Currently, there are close to 200 Israeli Arabs serving in the IDF, of whom approximately half are Bedouin. The second major group comprises Arab Moslems or Christians, most of whom are from Arab village throughout the country.

Yet these figures do not tell the entire story. Only one out of three Arab volunteers is accepted for army service, once it is established that they meet the specific criteria set by the IDF. “An Arab youth who volunteers for the IDF has to serve three years; he must be the same approximate age as Israeli conscripts, and he must speak fluent Hebrew,” states Col. Moshe Yaari, who oversees the draft for the IDF’s manpower branch.

“Generally, the volunteer has to have completed ten years of schooling, and we won’t take anyone who doesn’t have parental backing. Parents have a strong standing in Arab society, particularly in the Bedouin country,” Yaari observes.

ISSUE OF COMPULSORY ARMY SERVICE

Yaari, who has supervised the draft for the past five years, points out that the Law of Compulsory National Service legislated by the Knesset in 1949 applies to all Israeli citizens, irrespective of race or religion. In other words, by law Israeli Arabs are required to do national service. In practice, however, the situation is entirely different, since the law has never been enforced.

Nevertheless, army service is compulsory for Druze and Circassian men. Community elders from these two groups petitioned the Knesset in the mid1950′s that their sons be conscripted into the IDF. The request was granted, and Druze and Circassian soldiers are today found in various units throughout the army.

Events were somewhat different concerning Israeli Bedouins. A few Bedouins — and Arab Moslem — quietly volunteered in the 1950′s. In the 1960′s and 1970′s, many Bedouins were drafted directly into the standing army, where they served primarily as trackers. There were few Jews who possessed tracking skills, and financial incentives also helped attract Bedouins to army service.

Yaari notes that the recent upward swing in the number of Arab volunteers for the army is the result of a policy change made in the IDF during the last three years regarding the question of Arab military service.

MOTIVES FOR VOLUNTEERING

Presently there is no separate minorities unit, and the vast majority serves in combat units. “A few of the volunteers who have a profession are sent to other tasks, ” says Yaari, “but most go straight into field units, such as Golani and the paratroopers. Physical fitness is also one of our criteria.”

Yaari points out that most of the Arab Moslem and Christian volunteers come from villages, not large towns such as Nazareth or Shfar’am. He adds that motives for volunteering range from social status concerns (so as not to face job discrimination and the like), to the attraction of learning advanced technology, to that of simple personal challenge.

Once and application has been made which meets the various criteria, IDF representatives are sent to meet with the candidate’s family, to verify parental support. “We won’t take someone who wants or needs a new identity in order to serve in the army,” Yaari notes.

Yaari says he doesn’t know of a single instance in which an Arab volunteer who was accepted for army service was later dismissed.

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