IDF launches programs to encourage Bedouin, Christians to enlist

Army to set up initiatives to train and integrate minority groups, increase numbers of Arab-speaking soldiers

Illustrative. Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman visits the IDF Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion army base on July 26, 2016. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)
Illustrative. Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman visits the IDF Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion army base on July 26, 2016. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

The Israel Defense Forces has stepped up efforts to encourage Bedouin and Christian teens to volunteer for army service, offering a range of varied options in a bid to entice them to join up.

Bedouin and Arab Christians, like all Arab citizens of Israel, are exempt from compulsory military service, but an estimated half of those eligible choose to sign up for the IDF.

In the past few months the army sent letters to Bedouin youth approaching enlistment age inviting them to volunteer and laying out their options, Haaretz reported on Thursday.

“Today, more than ever, the IDF allows you to serve meaningfully in a variety of roles and positions that contribute to the IDF and to you personally,” the letter read.

Some 80 Bedouin have already signed up this year for a special two-year army program, which is shorter than the 30 months that Jewish men usually serve. In addition to their army training, the course gives recruits the opportunity to earn a truck-driving license in an attempt to make volunteering more attractive.

“At the moment the army is not particularly attractive,” a recruitment officer told Haaretz. “Volunteers ask ‘what is in it for me?’ Many choose to go into the transportation field, which is a sought-after and well-paying career.”

Traditionally, many Bedouin serve in the IDF elite tracking units, however the army wants to tell them that there are a range of options available to them. “We tell the Bedouin sector that ‘we want you in all available units.’ We are investing a lot of effort in this,” the officer said, “and I feel that there has been a change in attitude.”

Yet many within the Bedouin community remain skeptical, feeling that they did not receive the future they were promised.

“I believed that once you gave of yourself, then you would also receive in return, that you would get more rights,” Khaled Aljaar said of his decision to enlist. “But that is not how it is. You don’t get what you deserve, you are still discriminated against.”

The army is also looking to increase the number of Christian Arabs who sign up. Following a discontinued trial in 2014, the IDF has again adopted active recruiting methods and has sent out voluntary conscription papers to some 800 teens. This reverses a decades-long policy that required Christian Arab recruits to initiate first contact with the military.

Christians, like their Jewish peers, will receive preliminary conscription papers around the age of 16 and a half. However, their participation in the process will remain voluntary.

The army also plans to create a pre-army course specifically for that community to prepare them for service and will set up recruitment centers in Haifa, Nazareth and Maalot, which have large Christian populations.

The IDF believes that the initiative will greatly increase recruitment within the Arab Christian community, continuing a trend of recent years.

Recruiting Christian Arabs has always provoked inter-communal tensions, more so in recent years as the number of Christian draftees has steadily risen.

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