A fierce debate on the status of Christian-Arabs as a distinct minority erupted in a Labor, Welfare and Health Committee meeting in the Knesset on Wednesday, during which Israeli-Arab MKs accused Likud MK Yariv Levin of undermining Arab identity and creating a split in the Arab community.

The discussion revolved around a new bill sponsored by Levin that aims to add a separate Israeli Christian Arab representative to the panel of Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity in the Employment Commission. The proposed legislation, which passed in its first reading, would constitute the first legal differentiation between Israel’s Muslim and Christians Arabs.

“The legislation would give separate representation and separate consideration to the Christian population, that will separate them from Muslim Arabs,” Levin told Maariv a few months ago. “It’s a historic and important step that could balance the State of Israel and connect us to the Christians, and I am careful not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs.”

The Christian Arabs, “our natural allies,” differ from the Muslims “who want to destroy the state from within,” Levin said.

Israeli-Arabs MKs panned the bill, and said it underlies a desire to advance the legal status of Christian Arabs in Israel, at the expense of Muslims.

“Levin wants to divide the Arab public, which is already oppressed. We won’t be his slaves,” MK Jamal Zahalke of the Balad party said.

“If you want to fix the injustices of the Christians, bring them back to the villages Ikrit and Bir’am,” Balad MK Hanin Zoabi said. Zoabi was later asked to leave the room for her comments.

Lt. (res.) Shadi Halul, who heads the Christian IDF Officers Forum, and was present at the debate called the Arab MKs “racists.”

“I’m proud to be Christian. We have a right to self-definition as well; we are entitled to recognition,” he said.

“We are supporting this bill,” Halul told the Times of Israel in an e-mail interview. “It makes justice for Christian needs and solves discrimination against them within the Arab community that the state has falsely put them in for 65 years.”

“Christians have their own historical identity and heritage with a destiny different from Arabs and Muslims,” he continued. “If something happened to our beloved country Israel, we as Christians will have a harmful destiny, as we see now in Syria, with massacres, rape,church destruction, like what happened in Lebanon and Iraq before. We deserve the right to self-representation and identity with legal Christian representatives that understand our needs, to stop discrimination…”

“We pray this bill will pass successfully,” Halul added. “We need it for a better future.”

There are 161,000 Christians living in Israel. Nearly 80 percent of them are of Arab origin, with the remainder largely hailing from the former Soviet states. For years, the majority group — which has included an Israel Prize-winning author and a Supreme Court justice as well as an unswervingly anti-Zionist member of Knesset – has maintained a European birth rate and the top position on Israel’s scholastic achievement charts. But it has often identified, first, as Arabs and Palestinians – nearly all live in majority Muslim towns and villages – and only after as Israelis, certainly in all matters pertaining to compulsory military service.

In a move some attribute to the sectarian violence associated with the Arab Spring, Israel’s Christian Arabs have increasingly sounded calls for an identity distinct from the country’s majority-Muslim Arab society, with an emphasis on their ties to the Israeli state. In July, Israeli Christians banded together to create a new political party called “Sons of the New Testament.” The party encourages enlistment in the IDF and full integration into Israeli society.

In addition, 2013 saw a threefold increase in IDF enlistment among the Christian population.

Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report