Knesset moves to force national service on Palestinians in Israel

Palestinians say a new law to compel national service is motivated by a desire to portray Israel as “Jewish and democratic.”

Mahfouz Abu Turk APA images

A draft law set to be enacted at the beginning of next month could make it compulsory for Palestinians living in present-day Israel to undertake national service, despite the state’s system of discrimination against Palestinian citizens.

Under preparation by a committee in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, the law would introduce penalties for young people holding Israeli citizenship who refuse to comply. The proposed law is the latest in a string of precedent-setting discriminatory legislation passed by the Knesset impacting the rights of Palestinians in Israel, including the Nakba law, which criminalizes commemorations of the 1948 dispossession of historic Palestine, and the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which prevents a Palestinian citizen from living with a spouse from the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Headed by Yohanan Plesner, a representative of the political party Kadima, the committee is revising an earlier law from 2002. While the earlier legislation dealt primarily with the question of whether military service should be mandatory for ultra-Orthodox Jews, it could now be extended to cover Palestinians in Israel. Under the revised law, Palestinians in Israel would be required to perform national civic service, as an alternative to conscription to the military.

Named after Tzvi Tal, a former judge in the Israeli high court, the Tal law from 2002 was a response to an Israeli government initiative stating that all people holding Israeli citizenship had to carry an “equal burden.” In theory, Palestinians who perform national service would be offered equal rights with Jewish Israelis in terms of access to education and employment. In practice, Palestinians in Israel, one-fifth of the state’s population, are discriminated against in many aspects of their lives.

Propaganda masquerading as academic research

Allowing full-time students in yeshiva — Jewish religious schools — to defer military service, the Tal law was declared unconstitutional by the Israeli high court in February (“Israel’s high court rules Tal law unconstitutional, says Knesset cannot extend it in present form,” Haaretz, 21 February 2012).

Although it was scheduled to expire this August, the court has ruled that it may not be extended unless its content is changed. Its official name is the Deferral of Military Service for Yeshiva Students Law.

The possibility of compulsory national service for Palestinians in Israel was placed on the political agenda as part of a response to clashes between Palestinians in Israel and the police in October 2000, during which more than a dozen unarmed Palestinian demonstrators were killed by state forces. A form of “voluntary” civic service was introduced for Palestinians in Israel in 2006.

According to the politicians who are pushing for this move, national service for Palestinians in Israel is necessary to underscore that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state.” Supporters of the law have pointed to an ideologically-motivated and dubious study published by the University of Haifa in 2009 concluding that 80 percent of Arabs in Israel who support national service accept that Israel should be recognized as “Jewish and democratic.”

For the past few years, there has been a growing propaganda effort to convince Palestinians within Israel to support national service. This effort has consisted of social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, advertisements on Israel’s major radio stations and newspapers, and the promotion of academic surveys such as the University of Haifa study.

Another such survey was conducted by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies in cooperation with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty. It presented a series of proposals, arguing that “Arabs would participate in civil service, which would gradually [within five years] become mandatory service; they would recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with Hebrew as the primary [first] official language; and they would accept the continued existence of the Law of Return for Jews. The Jews, for their part, would recognize Arabs as a national minority; they would grant equality to Arabs in civil matters, in addition to the rights and status derived from recognizing them as a national minority” (“Survey: Most Arabs are interested in integration in the State of Israel, including mandatory civil service”).

The media have reported, referring to the University of Haifa survey, that more than 40 percent of Palestinian youth in Israel approve of national service (“ ‘Arabs less inclined to volunteer for national service’,” The Jerusalem Post, 8 May 2012). Israel’s National Civil Service Directorate has also claimed that the number of Palestinians voluntarily performing national service has increased substantially: from 240 in 2006 to more than 1,500 this year (“Israel’s Arabs debate national service,” The Media Line, 26 July 2011).

Palestinian critiques have put into question the accuracy and methodology of these surveys. For example, recent University of Haifa survey results were skewed because a disproportionate number of surveyed youth indicating support for national service were already undertaking the service, meaning that they were not a representative group.

But the sensational statistics make good headlines, and are being used as part of a public relations blitz to drum up support for the Plesner committee’s proposals. It is no coincidence that there is not even one Palestinian on the committee.

Last week Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, coalition partners in the Knesset, announced their withdrawal from the Plesner committee (also known as the Committee for the Advancement of an Equal Burden) because it is planning to include Arabs in national service in a gradual manner, claiming that the gradual implementation was “favoring the Israeli-Arab public.”

As debate about the law raged on, the committee was dissolved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week before it released its official conclusions because of growing dissent in the Knesset over the committee.

Haaretz reported today, “the bill prepared by the Plesner Committee has outraged four of Netanyahu’s other five coalition partners: Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, and the two Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. The Haredi parties are upset by its proposal to impose financial penalties on ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to serve, while the other parties are upset that it proposes a much more gradual process for instituting service by Israeli Arabs than it does for Haredim” (“Mini-rebellion erupts in Kadima party as Labor seeks to disperse Knesset).

The law is now in Netanyahu’s hands after the dissolution of the committee, and the new law must be drafted before the current law expires on 1 August.

The Plesner committee’s official conclusions, expected to be revealed today, threaten to create rifts in Israeli government coalitions as a result of the committee’s determination to hold the ultra-Orthodox community to the law.

“I will not bring a law to a vote which does not also require equal enlistment for the Ultra-Orthodox and Arabs,” Netanyahu stated last week (“Netanyahu: New national service law will apply to all - including Arabs, Haredim,” Haaretz, 28 June).

Protests from Palestinian community

The Palestinian community is protesting the law; as Haaretz reported, the Follow-Up Committee for Arabs in Israel launched a petition against the national service and Tal law, and are calling for a national protest against national service for Arabs in Nazareth on 14 July.

The Plesner committee’s efforts have encountered strong opposition from representatives of the Palestinian community in Israel, contradicting academic studies suggesting broad support for national service within the sector. The Coalition Against Civic Service is working to raise public awareness about how the national service plan would imperil Palestinians’ civil rights and erode their national identity.

Ayman Odeh, a lawyer who heads the coalition, told The Electronic Intifada: “The government should be talking to us regarding our rights and general relations and not dealing with us through the back door. The Arab community works and pays taxes and yet is far from getting equal rights as it still deals with a high unemployment rate and many other problems. One thing to be stated is that Israel has deprived most of its Arab citizens of our land. Israel is the one who should be working to compensate us. Israel is the one responsible and in debt, not the Arab citizens.”

Odeh also ridiculed the demand of the Israeli government for Palestinians to shoulder an “equal burden” with Jewish Israelis. “To which ‘equal burden’ do they refer?” he asked. “The burden of living in a ‘Jewish country,’ the burden of occupation or the burden of capitalism?”

Baladna, an organization representing Palestinian youth, has been running a major campaign against national service for the past five years. Nadim Nashif, head of Baladna, noted that there is a painful historical parallel for the Israeli initiative: the Druze religious minority community has previously been compelled to serve in the Israeli army. The result was that Druze were isolated from the wider Palestinian community in Israel.

“This matter is no less dangerous than in 1956 when a similar law was forced on the Palestinian Druze community to do the military service,” said Nashif. “We have to work to stop this law. Can you imagine 28,000 Arab youth annually doing the national service, going through a brainwashing process and regarding the State of Israel as a Jewish state? Where does that leave the Palestinian identity? We cannot let that happen to our youth. We are joining forces as organizations and individuals to stop this law.”

Sawsan Khalife’ is a political activist and journalist from Shefa Amr in the Galilee region of Palestine.