Only a few years ago, Fares and Firas Muhammad, Muslim Arab twins from East Jerusalem, had juvenile rap sheets and seemed destined for a life of petty crime and delinquency.
Today both are star members of the Israel Defense Forces’ storied Golani Brigade, and Fares is now training to become a squad commander.
The two brothers’ incredible story was shared on Channel 12 Friday night, chronicling their rise from teen malcontents to proud and highly regarded troopers in Israel’s combat forces.
The boys’ parents divorced when they were two years old and their father has been out of the picture since. As young children they were at one point in a Jewish preschool. When they were 10, their mother escaped with them from her abusive second husband and entered a battered women’s shelter. The two then moved between boarding schools and spent much of their childhoods on the streets of Haifa.
“There were lots of run-ins with police… lots of violence,” Fares said. “I got into trouble with friends, we brawled a lot. Stole a lot. The crime world had an appeal for me. I don’t know. I liked the action there, that moment when you’re in the thrill of doing something forbidden.”
Firas, too, was continuously involved in violence and criminal activity.
Perhaps the brothers’ low point — and for Fares, the turning point — was when the two robbed a gas station at age 15.
“We went into the gas station with masks,” Fares said. “One of us had a fake gun. [After] a bit of shouting and intimidation, we took the cash register and ran.”
But the two were quickly caught after a police probe tracked them down through CCTV footage. “We weren’t very smart,” Fares said.
A judge then ordered Fares sent to an institution that changed his life — the Nirim Youth Village for at-risk teens, located north of Haifa.
Established by alumni of the elite Shayetet 13 command unit, the village focuses on wilderness therapy, rehabilitation work through extreme experiences in nature in which teens develop survival and navigation skills.
Councilors recalled that Fares initially encountered racism from other teens, with some even threatening to leave over his presence.
“Why are you bringing a terrorist here?” Idan Friedman said, summing up the attitudes asserted by other teens. They expressed “all the stigmas, everything a teen that comes to Nirim, with all the prejudices and all the brainwashing they’ve gone through, knows. For them an Arab was a terrorist and shouldn’t be here.”
It was not easy going with Fares. He initially showed very violent tendencies and intimidated others at the village. After 18 months, when management believed he had made progress, a knife was discovered under his mattress.
“I don’t know that I would have pulled it out and threatened anyone with it,” he recalled. “But in my mind, with the pattern of criminality, in the criminal mind — you need that knife there, so that you’re always ready.”
He was suspended, but counselors weren’t ready to give up on him yet. Friedman suggested that he hike the Israel National Trail route, which stretches from Eilat in the south to Kibbutz Dan in the north. He did, for seven weeks, with changing counselors joining him for stretches along the way.
Fares said it was an experience that fundamentally changed him.
“On the way you’re walking with yourself for company,” he said. “You’re disconnected from everyone, you don’t have a phone. You look to your right and hear your thoughts, you look to your left and hear your thoughts. Wherever you go all you hear is yourself talking to yourself. A lot of questions about yourself come up: ‘Do I really want to keep behaving like that?'”
Coming up on 18, and with his experiences in survival comradeship ingrained in him, Fares decided he wanted to enlist. As an Arab, it wasn’t something he was at all obligated to do.
Israel’s Arabs make up some 20 percent of the population, but only about 1% of them serve in the army. Among Israel’s minorities, members of the Druze community regularly serve in the military, and Bedouin soldiers are relatively common as well.
Non-Bedouin Arabs are far more rare in the army, with military service often carrying intense social stigma. Of those who do serve, most who enlist are Christian Arabs rather than Muslim.
This stands to reason: most Arab Israelis view themselves as members of the Palestinian people. Israel’s enemies are largely Arab, Muslim or both — whether Lebanese, Syrian, Iranian or Palestinian. And a significant chunk of the military’s work comprises policing the Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
Asked why he had decided to enlist, Fares said this was “the question of questions” but that, in the end, it was about appreciation for what the country had done for him.
“My life hasn’t been easy since childhood, and in the end it was the state that helped my mom, you see,” he said. “Whether it’s the welfare institutions, the boarding schools I went to… So for me it’s gratitude. And also, I live in this country, I love this country.”
While Fares was having his experiences in Nirim, Firas continued to get into trouble and spent a few months in a detention institution. He said a heart-to-heart with his mother one day, after she’d bailed him out of prison yet again, set him on a better trajectory. Sitting in the car, both began crying and Firas promised her he was going to change.
“Enough with the bullshit,” he recalled thinking to himself. “How long can it go on? To see my mom come to court every time, with me in handcuffs. It’s not fun. It’s seriously humiliating. It’s etched into my mind.”
Firas said when he showed up at the IDF draft office as a Muslim Arab with a history of crime and violence, he was sent in for a talk with a mental health officer.
“He told me, ‘Look, I don’t see you being in combat, but you can be in combat support,'” Firas recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘Listen, I can totally do combat. I’m a super combat soldier. I really want to be in combat, I’ll give anything you want, just let me be in combat.”
Eventually the military was convinced, and the twins both ended up in the Golani Brigade.
Amichai Taub, a religious soldier who is in the squad commander course with Fares, said: “At first I thought there’d be some gaps between us; after all we come from very different worlds. But with time you realize Fares is a fantastic person. Fares would give his life for everyone and everyone would give their lives for Fares.”
Firas is also very popular. His company commander, Lt. Yair Yehud, said he was one of his most dedicated soldiers. “With any physical act, Firas is always first. He’s very well liked.”
Their choices have been less popular with their family. Though Fares said no one had approached him personally, words had been exchanged with their mother.
“It bothered them. It’s sort of a bad name for the family,” he said. “But my mom’s a strong woman and she supports us.”
After years in and out of institutions and courts, the twins feel that military service is their path to acceptance in mainstream Israeli society.
The brothers get along well and have been supportive of each other throughout the process, though Firas said Fares tends to lord his first-born status over him. He did after all, emerge into the world five full minutes earlier.
“When someone wants to ride shotgun in the car [I get a] ‘Hey, hey, five minutes,’ you know?” he laughed. “Five minutes means something to him. But it’s fine, I let him have it.”
In an emotional moment for the two, Fares recently surprised Firas, joining him on a leg of his beret march, a lengthy hike soldiers complete at the end of their training to receive their unit’s signature beret.
Firas has now been serving in Hebron for the past two and a half months.
Asked if it wasn’t difficult for him to be part of “the occupying power” in the West Bank, he said, “I took that into account [when joining]. But you say to yourself ‘I chose to do this and that’s how it is.'”
He added that when his unit goes out for arrests in the city, he covers his face, as he has some distant relatives in Hebron and prefers not to enter into confrontations.
“Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes you say to yourself, ‘I could have been just like them. If my mom hadn’t put me in a Jewish preschool I should have been like them… But I’m happy that my mom did it. Otherwise I don’t know where I’d be today.”