Israeli army recruitment plan aims to incite Christian-Muslim tensions

Men carry banner reading Yaffa says no to racism and settlements in Arabic and Hebrew

Critics of a new Israeli army recruitment campaign say it’s designed to fragment the Palestinian community and make it more difficult to obtain their rights.

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Leaders of Israel’s Palestinian minority have accused the Israeli authorities of intensifying efforts to push Christian and Muslim communities into conflict, as part of a long-running divide-and-rule strategy towards the country’s Palestinian citizens.

The allegations have been prompted by a series of initiatives to pressure Christian school-leavers into the army, breaking the community’s blanket rejection of the Israel army draft for the past 65 years.

Leaders from the Palestinian community, Christian and Muslim, who have spoken against this new enlistment effort have been called in for investigation by Israel’s secret police. In an Orwellian inversion, they have been accused of “incitement to violence.”

The issue first came to prominence last October when the defense ministry quietly staged a conference close to Nazareth, the effective capital of Palestinians in Israel, to promote military service among Christians.

The participation of three local clergymen in the conference sent shock waves through the Muslim and Christian communities.

The move was seen as a prelude to launching a more general recruitment drive among Palestinian Christians. Currently both Christians and Muslims, comprising nearly a fifth of Israel’s population, are exempt from conscription.

Instilling “Zionist values”

In an apparently related step in July, a Christian in Nazareth whose brother is an official in the defense ministry announced the establishment of a Christian-Jewish party. Municipal elections are due in late October.

The movement, which also runs an enlistment forum to encourage Christians to serve in the army, has paired with a far-right Jewish group, Im Tirtzu.

Im Tirtzu has been behind various McCarthyite campaigns, including pressuring Israeli universities to dismiss staff seen as left-wing; lobbying to strengthen “Zionist values” in the school curriculum; and seeking penalties for Israeli nongovernmental organizations supporting the rights of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Officials in Nazareth have warned that their city is at risk of becoming a flash-point for inter-communal fighting if Israel continues to stir up sectarian tensions.

Dominated by its Christian institutions but with a two-thirds Muslim majority, Nazareth has been struggling to temper sectarian divisions since the late 1990s. That was when the Israeli government promoted a provocative project to build a mosque next to the city’s main Christian pilgrimage site, the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Israel’s Palestinian Christians, numbering 125,000, or about nine percent of the Palestinian minority, are mostly located in Nazareth and its surrounding villages.

Divide and conquer

The issue of military service is an especially contentious one for the Palestinian minority, said Azmi Hakim, leader of the Greek Orthodox community council in Nazareth.

Most Palestinian citizens refuse to join the army because they reject the role of the Israeli military in oppressing other Palestinians and in enforcing an occupation that violates international law. However, there are strong objections on other grounds.

“Israel has tried to use military service as a way to break us up as a national group since the state’s earliest days,” Hakim said. “It wants us to be weak, separate religious communities incapable of organizing and demanding our rights.”

The Druze community, of a similar size to the Christian one, has been conscripted into the army since the 1950s. As a consequence, Israel designated the Druze a national group distinct from the rest of the Palestinian minority, and created a separate education system to inculcate “Zionist values.”

Israel has also persuaded some Bedouins to volunteer as army trackers. Otherwise, only a tiny number of Christians and Muslims request to have their exemption waived — in most cases, according to scholar Rhoda Kanaaneh, in the hope of accruing extra financial benefits related to army service.

Abir Kopty, a former Nazareth councilor, said that Israel had long tried to instill in Christians an insecurity towards their Muslim neighbors.

“Israel’s goal is to make Christians feel like a vulnerable minority and that they will be safer only if they have been trained by the army and have a gun. We hear Christian youngsters who consider enlistment saying things like, ‘I want to protect myself and my family,’” she said.

In similar fashion, Druze youths have been known to turn their weapons on Christian and Muslim neighbors when disputes have arisen. In one notorious incident, in 2003, Druze soldiers fired an anti-tank missile at a church in the village of Rama in the Galilee (“Communal pitfalls,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 6-12 March 2003).

Sectarian campaign

The pro-enlistment conference held in October was arranged by Ehab Shlayan, a career officer in the Israeli military from Nazareth who was recently appointed as “adviser on Christian issues” in the defense ministry.

It was staged in Upper Nazareth, a city established on Nazareth’s lands in the 1950s as part of Israel’s project to “Judaize the Galilee,” the area where the Palestinian community in Israel is concentrated. The mayor, Shimon Gapso, an ally of Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, helped sponsor the event.

Palestinian leaders said Gapso’s role was entirely cynical.

Last year Gapso described Nazareth as a “nest of terror” and called on the government to cut all funding to the city. He argued that Nazareth’s residents should be expelled to Gaza.

In recent years he has angrily denounced the growing trend for families from Nazareth, many of them Christian, to move to his city, with much of the migration spurred by land shortages that have made it increasingly difficult to build in Nazareth.

Palestinians now comprise as much as a quarter of Upper Nazareth’s population, but Gapso has publicly declared they are unwelcome. He recently erected large Israeli flags at all entrances to the city “so that people will know Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city.”

Gapso’s antipathy towards the Palestinian minority has demonstrably included Christians. In winter 2010 he banned Christmas trees from all public buildings, and has refused to allow the establishment of a church in his city.

Recent reports revealed that he secretly appointed a “settlement adviser” – Rabbi Hillel Horowitz, a settler from Hebron – on ways to bring extremist religious Jews to the city in the hope of driving out Palestinian residents “Mysterious ‘adviser on settlement affairs’ no. 13 on Habayit Hayehudi slate,” Haaretz, 11 January).

“Good Arabs”

News of the conference on recruiting Christian community members was revealed on social media a short time after it was held in October. More than 120 Christian teenagers were reported to have attended, mostly drawn from the local Greek Catholic and Maronite scout groups.

However, the fact that three senior clergy from Nazareth took part and spoke in favor of Christian enlistment has caused particular consternation.

They include 39-year-old Bishop Jibril Nadaf, from the Greek Orthodox community, the largest Christian denomination in Israel, and Father Masoud Abu Hatoum, of the Greek Catholic community.

Nazareth’s Greek Orthodox council, an elected body that represents the community’s interests in the city, immediately issued a statement denouncing Nadaf’s participation. A short time later the patriarch in Jerusalem, Theophilus III, barred Nadaf from entering the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.

According to church officials, Theophilus will announce Nadaf’s relocation to Jerusalem in the next few weeks.

Azmi Hakim said Israel had been trying to find a way to recruit Christians to the army – to sever them from the 80 percent of the minority who are Muslim – since the state’s creation. The chief obstacle, he said, had been finding a religious leader who would give the initiative the stamp of the church’s approval.

“Now they think they have a way to split the Christian community by using Nadaf’s authority to justify an enlistment drive,” he said. “But only the council can speak for the community.”

Nadaf has also been criticized by Palestinian members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, including MK Haneen Zoabi from the Balad party and MK Muhammad Barakeh from Hadash. Both have called for his dismissal.

So far Nadaf has remained defiant. He stated in June: “We want young Christians to be completely integrated into Israeli society, and this means also carrying an equal share of the burden. Our future as a Christian minority is wrapped up in the future of the State of Israel” (“Arab pastor: Our future is with Israel,Israel Today, 9 July).

Nadaf’s mention of “sharing the burden” was a reference to a government campaign to justify continuing to deny Palestinian citizens their rights unless they either serve in the military or perform an equivalent civilian service.

Nadaf has since received public calls of support from government ministers, most notably from the justice minister Tzipi Livni and the interior minister Gideon Saar.

Activists harassed

Likud MK Miri Regev, who heads the Knesset’s interior committee, this month criticized the Palestinian MKs’ intervention, calling them “Trojan horses in the Knesset.” She accused them of “incitement against a Christian priest who encourages young Christians to enlist in the IDF [Israel’s military].”

The Israeli publication Ynet reported that the police had received “a green light” to question the MKs for possible incitement (“Arab MKs to be questioned on suspicion of incitement,”, 3 July).

Those who have led opposition to the conference have found themselves called in for interrogation by the police and Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet. They have been warned that they are under investigation for “incitement to violence.”

Hakim said he had been called for interrogation on three occasions since he and the council denounced Nadaf.

He was also phoned by the Shin Bet two hours before the council met to issue its statement: “They warned me, ‘This is bigger than you or the council.’ They told me not to get involved.”

He has faced a hate campaign and death threats ever since the council issued its statement. “Shortly afterwards, I received an anonymous phone call identifying my children, my place of work and my home address. I was told people would come for me, to behead me,” he said.

He has repeatedly complained about a Hebrew hate site on Facebook created in his name. Despite repeated complaints to the police, nothing appears to have been done to remove the page.

Azmi Hakim, the Greek Orthodox community leader in Nazareth, was required to sign a statement that he would not approach or contact Nadaf but has refused to sign another stating that he would not mention his name.

Abir Kopty was also called for interrogation after writing a blog post in Arabic and English criticizing those who participated in the conference.

The Shin Bet have demanded of all those brought in for interrogation an unexpected condition: that they agree to provide a DNA sample.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer with the Adalah legal center for the Arab minority in Israel, said the requirement to submit to a DNA test was illegal in both Hakim and Kopty’s cases.

This month Adalah sent a letter to the attorney general saying there was no basis for an investigation of either of them. Bishara said: “This is clearly a free speech matter and the investigations are a transparent attempt to intimidate and silence them.”

New Jewish-Christian party

In an apparent sign that Israeli officials are now keen to push ahead with enlistment, a new Jewish-Christian party was established in Nazareth this month called “Sons of the New Testament.”

The founder, Bishara Shilyan, a 58-year-old former merchant navy captain, has several sons who volunteered for the army. His brother, Ehab Shilyan, works for the defense ministry as an adviser on Christian issues.

Bishara Shilyan, who refers to himself as an “Arabic-speaking Israeli Christian,” told the New York-based Jewish weekly the Algemeiner Journal: “We live in Israel, and I feel a part of the state and the Jewish People. Israel belongs to the Jews, and we are part of it.”

The campaign is reported to have already increased enlistment among school leavers. According to the Maariv newspaper, 90 Christians joined the Israeli military in recent months, a threefold increase from 2010.

Shilyan’s party has sought to play on Christian fears of what it describes as a growing “Muslim threat” in the region, as Islamic movements struggle for power in neighboring countries such as Egypt and Syria. “People see what’s happening now in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria,” Shilyan told the Times of Israel. “They understand where we’re living” (“New Christian Arab party calls for IDF enlistment,” 10 July 2013).

That message was echoed in an editorial in The Jerusalem Post, which rallied to Bishop Nadaf’s side: “Trying to survive under the Muslim thumb inside Israel’s Arab sector, Christians have kept a low profile, striven to give no offense and toed even the most extremist line to evince loyalty and avoid risk. … Those young Christians now eager to break the cycle should be encouraged, not discouraged” (“Father Nadaf,” 26 June).

Shilyan’s forum has been coordinating with the defense ministry in arranging regular meetings with Israeli Jewish Knesset members. The Israeli military recently announced that it had made Christian conscription easier at the nearest office in the Galilee, in Tiberias.

Shilyan is among those arguing that the Israeli military could increase enlistment numbers if it stopped assigning Christians to the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion, where they serve alongside Bedouin soldiers.


The Israeli military also has a poor track record in its treatment of Palestinian soldiers. It was recently widely reported that, under pressure, the military had finally agreed to allow non-Jewish soldiers killed in action to be buried in the same cemeteries as Jewish soldiers, although they will be kept in separate rows.

The matter came to a head on Memorial Day this year because the chief of staff, Benny Gantz, following traditional practice, laid a wreath on the grave of the last Jewish soldier to have been killed over the past year. As a result, he overlooked a soldier whose Jewishness was in doubt.

According to some observers, Shilyan has received support from a small group of Palestinian Christians based in the nearby town of Kafr Yasif who have adopted Christian Zionist positions. This has led to suggestions that the party may be receiving funds from Christian Zionist groups in the United States.

Hakim said the government’s latest efforts to recruit Christians to the army were a continuation of its meddling in Nazareth in the late 1990s, in what has come to be known as the “Shihab al-Din affair.”

In the run-up to the arrival of Pope John Paul II for the millennium celebrations in Nazareth, the Israeli government gave the go-ahead to a group of Muslims to build a large mosque in a square in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, the destination for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The square is the resting place of Shihab al-Din, a nephew of the Crusaders’ nemesis, Saladin.

The decision surprised observers, both because the mosque threatened to overshadow the Basilica and because it required unprecedented Israeli state recognition of Muslim claims to restitution of property confiscated in the 1948 war.

As the Muslim group took over the site, tensions escalated and by Easter 1999 violent clashes between Muslims and Christians were reported on front pages around the world.

Israel later reneged on its promises to the Muslim group and in 2003 demolished the foundations of the mosque that were under construction (“Divide and destroy,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 3-9 July 2003).

Widely-held suspicions in Nazareth are that the government sought to inflame sectarian violence in Nazareth at that time, shortly before peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership at Camp David in 2000, to help strengthen Israel’s case that only it could be entrusted to look after the holy sites in Jerusalem in a final-status agreement.

Accounts from Camp David suggest that Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, remained adamant that Israel should have exclusive sovereignty over the al-Aqsa compound of mosques in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Longstanding policy

The latest moves to recruit Christians to the army echo earlier efforts by Israeli officials, as part of a policy that sought to undermine the Palestinian population’s cohesion and its national identity.

A key figure among the Christians in the state’s early years was George Hakim, the Greek Catholic bishop for the Galilee.

According to Hillel Cohen, author of Good Arabs, a book about early collaboration by Palestinian leaders, Hakim sold church lands close to Nazareth in the early 1940s to Jewish pre-state organizations. He also established a Christian militia during the 1948 war.

It was therefore perhaps unsurprising that he and many of his followers, unlike most other refugees, were allowed to return from exile in Lebanon at the end of the war in 1949.

Hakim went on to transform the Catholic Scouts into a Zionist youth movement opposed to the Communist party, a joint Jewish-Arab party popular among Israel’s Palestinian citizens. It was then the only non-Zionist political movement allowed.

In 1958 Hakim considered signing an agreement with the army similar to that of the Druze leadership, but found little support among the wider Christian community. A photograph in Good Arabs shows Hakim seated next to Druze leader Sheikh Amin Tarif at an Israeli military parade for Independence Day in 1959.

The logic of Israel’s moves to recruit the Christians and Druze was explained in 1965 by Shmuel Toledano, the prime minister’s Arab affairs adviser: “The communal frameworks of religious and linguistic groups should be fostered, except for the Muslim, and the individuality of each and every separate community should be consolidated.”

Recent events highlight that this policy formulated in the state’s early years – to use sectarian differences to isolate the largest Palestinian community, of Muslims, from their Christian and Druze compatriots – holds to this day.

With Palestinian communal solidarity seen as a serious threat to the state’s Jewishness, Israel would prefer to push Muslims, Christians and Druze into open conflict.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His new website is