IDF figures for 2013 show a significant increase in the small number of Arab Christian Israeli citizens opting to serve in the military, a course that has long been taboo outside the Druze and Bedouin communities of Israel.

“Since last June, within the space of half a year, 84 Christians have joined the military,” the army wrote on its official site earlier this week. That figure, while small, represents a threefold increase from past averages.

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.

Father Gabriel Naddaf, addressing a gathering of Christian Arab soldiers earlier this week, called, not for the first time, for a radical shift. “As a Christian spiritual teacher living in the Middle East, I understand that human rights are not to be taken for granted,” the IDF website quoted him as saying. “I believe in shared life between Jews and Christians in this state and a shared fate between the Christian minority and the Jewish state. I believe that we have the capability to contribute to the state and I call on the children of the Christian congregations — enlist in the IDF, help protect the state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sent a recorded message to the gathering in Nazareth — the largest of the Christian population centers in Israel — said that the goal of the initiative is “clear and blessed” and stressed that “there is no need to underscore the importance of your actions… I salute you and support you.”

The prime minister acknowledged the challenges facing the initiative. “I know it is not an easy mission but we will stand beside you and support you unstintingly. I am committed to ousting the threat and the violence that you face.”

Christian Arab Border Policemen and soldiers flank deputy minister MK Ofir Akunis (Photo credit: courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Christian Arab border policemen and soldiers flank deputy minister MK Ofir Akunis (photo credit: courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Naddaf, who lives in the central Galilee town of Yafia, said he has faced an escalating regime of threats. “The violence and incitement against Christians seeking to assimilate into society, knows no bounds,” he reportedly said. “The incitement has borne fruit — what began as a blood-soaked towel at the door of my home reached new heights two weeks ago when my 17-year-old son was attacked.”

The meeting of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, the first in which nearly all currently serving soldiers were in attendance, drew politicians and mid- to high-level IDF officers. Maj. Ihab Shalian, the founder of the enlistment forum, told the IDF news site that “the rise in enlistment is there but up till now there was a lot of fear — on one hand on account of uncertainty, and on the other, fear from our surroundings.”

That, however, has changed, he said. “Most of the sons of the congregation want to be a part of the state and I believe that now that the fear barrier has been broken — we’ll only progress from here.”