Christian Arab MK: We won’t be co-opted like the Druze

Basel Ghattas says Arab society in Israel will oppose legislation meant to fragment it along religious lines

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Balad MK Basel Ghattas (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Balad MK Basel Ghattas (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Government-backed legislation intended to separate Christian Arabs from their majority Muslim surroundings will meet massive opposition, a Christian member of Knesset told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

Bassel Ghattas, a member of the Balad party, said that Israel is taking advantage of the atmosphere of uncertainty among Christian minorities in the Arab Middle East to advance legislation intended to conscript Christian Arabs into the IDF, as it did with the Druze community over 60 years ago.

“This is very dangerous,” Ghattas said. “The whole attitude is colonialist. It is the white man mentality of telling the natives what is good for them.”

Earlier this week, the Knesset passed a law submitted by coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud), forcing the advisory committee for equal opportunities in the workplace to include a Christian Arab member alongside a Muslim Arab member.

MK Yariv Levin during a discussion at the Knesset, July 24, 2012. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
MK Yariv Levin at the Knesset, July 24, 2012 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Insignificant as the law may seem, Levin told Maariv in January that he is planning to draft a series of laws intended to separate Christians (which he refused to refer to as Arabs) from their majority-Muslim society. One such law will allow Christian Arabs to register their nationality in Israeli identity cards as “Christian” rather than “Arab.”

But more significantly, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) intends to recommend that the government apply the compulsory draft to Christian Arabs as it has been applied to the Druze community in Israel since 1951, Israeli news site Walla reported on February 12.

German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis, right, and MK Danny Danon (photo credit: courtesy Knesset)
MK Danny Danon (photo credit: courtesy Knesset)

Currently, only 300 Christian Arabs volunteer as soldiers in the IDF and an additional 429 women volunteer for civil service.

MK Ghattas said that forced conscription will meet opposition not only from Christian Arabs, but from Arab society as a whole.

“Already today many young people are mobilizing against it, organizing festivals, conferences, Facebook pages,” he said. “Ultimately, there is a battle raging over the consciousness and collective memory of our people, and we will not remain silent.”

In that spirit, Ghattas sent a letter to Pope Francis last week, asking him to intervene in preventing the Christian draft.

But not all the grassroots activity opposing Christian conscription is as pacifist as Ghattas described. IDF volunteers have complained of harassment and intimidation within their communities. When Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest and activist for Christian conscription, held a community gathering on the issue in the city of Shfaram earlier this month, young men arrived at the host’s doorstep and demanded that Naddaf leave, Haaretz reported. Naddaf’s 17-year-old son was physically attacked in December by a youth who denounced him for his father’s activities.

Ghattas said that public outrage against Naddaf’s Forum for the recruitment of Christians stems from the involvement of right-wing organizations such as Im Tirtzu, and of the Prime Minister’s Office, in the matter.

“Clearly there’s a government drive here,” Ghattas said, noting that Naddaf was hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his office last August . “If it were just the few Christians volunteering every year on their own, no one would have noticed or made a fuss.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Father Gabriel Nadaf in his Jerusalem office, August 5, 2013 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/Flash90/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Father Gabriel Naddaf in his Jerusalem office, August 5, 2013 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/Flash90/GPO)

Ghattas challenged the claim that Christians can only demand equal rights in Israel by agreeing to shoulder obligations alongside the wider Israeli society.

“What happened with the Druze over the past 60 years?” he asked. “Did they get more rights? Were their lands not confiscated? Is their infrastructure in a better state? Do they not have demolition orders on their homes? Their situation is worse than ours [the Christians]. Visit a Druze town and a Christian town and tell me what the differences are.”

The Druze community, he argued, was manipulated by the government into volunteering for the army in 1951, when Israeli Arab towns were still under military rule and Arab society was weak and fragmented following the war of 1948. Soon a mandatory draft was imposed on the Druze.

“Druze society opposed this, but stood alone. Today we most certainly will not stand alone in our society.”

“More than 60 years later, we are in a different situation. We’re not a small isolated community like the Druze were in 1951, when they numbered just 12,000,” he said. “There are 140,000 Christian Arabs living within a developed Arab-Palestinian society with different media than existed back then.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed