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8 Apr, 2024 12:05

‘This military protects us all’: Why some Arabs choose to serve in the IDF

Despite the ongoing hostilities in Gaza, a record number of Arab soldiers are currently serving in the Israeli army
‘This military protects us all’: Why some Arabs choose to serve in the IDF

Israeli Arabs are normally exempt from the military service that is compulsory for all. However, throughout the years hundreds have enrolled in the IDF, albeit their numbers have been insignificant. In recent years, this tendency has shifted, and in 2021 more than a thousand Muslim Arabs served in its ranks.

With Israel’s operation in Gaza hitting the six-month mark, the international community is putting pressure on officials in West Jerusalem to end the war.

Mass demonstrations against the war have become common in such states as the US, UK, France, Germany, and Netherlands. The positive perception of Israel in the US has gone down from the previous 68% of 2023 to the current 58%, the lowest rating in over two decades.

A similar trend has also been registered in Arab states, where Israel's reputation has dropped, with 89% rejecting the idea of normalizing relations with Israel because of its bloody military campaign in Gaza.

Interestingly, though, this was not the case inside Israel within its own Arab population. In November 2023, shortly after the bloody attacks of Hamas on the country’s southern communities, where at least 1,400 people were slaughtered, a poll revealed that 70% of Arab Israelis felt a connection to the state and that the problems of Israel concerned them too. In comparison, in June of 2023, only 48% of Israeli Arabs had expressed such a view.

This sentiment has also translated into a boost in the number of Israeli Arabs who enrolled for military service.

Israeli law doesn’t impose service in the IDF on Israeli Arabs, who make up some 20% of the total population. Yet, throughout the years, some members of the community have served.

In recent years, however, more and more Israeli Arabs have opted for the military. While in 2018 and 2019, only 436 and 489 Arabs served in the IDF, respectively, in 2020 more than 600 wore the uniform. 

By 2021, the number of Arab soldiers had reached over a thousand, including in combat units, while the raging war in Gaza has given another boost to the numbers.

Yusef Hadad, an Israeli Arab from the city of Nazareth in northern Israel, is also one of those who decided to stand with Israel. 

In 2003, when he was 18, he went to serve in an elite combat unit called Golani, and three years later, he was sent to Lebanon, where Israel was waging a war in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by militants of Hezbollah, a Shiite militia linked to Iran. 

While fighting in the ranks of the IDF, he was wounded and lost a foot but says he has never regretted serving the State of Israel.

“The reason I decided to go and serve was because our army is called the IDF, meaning Israel Defence Forces, not JDF, Jewish Defence Forces. This military is for everyone and it protects us all, Jews and Arabs alike. So by serving there, I am serving not only my community but also all the peoples of Israel.”

Recalling his days in uniform, Hadad says he faced mixed reactions. He was bullied at times, harassed, and called a traitor for neglecting the Palestinian cause and for siding with whom many saw as an occupier. But such people, he says, have never managed to break his determination and spirit.

“I was never ashamed of my decision, and every time I went back home from the base, I made sure to wear my uniform, and I remember that children used to approach me to ask questions,” he said over the phone.

“Back in those days my deed was unique. In my own family I was the first one to do it. But I paved that path for many. My sister enrolled straight after me,” he added.

Today, due to his injury in the Second Lebanon War, Hadad is not able to serve in the reserves, but he dedicates his time to advocating for Israel. He has been seen in studios debating pro-Palestinian activists, often clashing with them without mincing his words. He is touring the world with lectures promoting Israel, for which he is often slammed and rebuked.

But the more the war in Gaza goes on, the more difficult it becomes to justify it. The number of casualties in Gaza has already surpassed 30,000 people. Thousands of others are wounded, many others are unaccounted for, while 80% of buildings have been partially or totally destroyed. More than a million Gazans have become internally displaced. 

The actions of some IDF soldiers are not helping Hadad’s advocacy efforts either. Since the beginning of the war on October 7, 2023 social media has been packed with viral videos of Israeli fighters ruining furniture, looting property and humiliating civilians – actions that have caused an international uproar. Hadad condemns the actions of these individuals, who “go against the morals of the IDF” and is certain they will be prosecuted and punished for their actions. 

“We are a small country of nine million people and almost every family in Israel was affected by the events of October 7. So some soldiers are acting out of anger and the desire to revenge. It is unfortunate but a rather natural reaction,” he explained.

“Yet, it is important to remember that the spirit of the IDF – from the lowest ranking soldier and to the highest ranking officer – is different. We are considered to be one of the most moral armies in the world and we do our best not to harm civilians.”

The statistics, however, show a different picture. Of the 30,000 people dead in Gaza, 10,000 were terrorists as per the IDF. The remaining 20,000 were civilians, including women and children.

But Hadad says the media  which is generally hostile to Israel  is misguided by information fed by Hamas.

“When I tell them that the IDF killed 10,000 terrorists, they don’t believe me. But they go on and quote the numbers of the Palestinian health ministry that’s controlled by the terror group Hamas. What does that mean? Do they rather believe a terror group than one of the most moral armies in the world? This is hypocrisy,” reasoned the activist.

Hadad believes that this biased approach towards Israel harms the credibility of news networks that “don’t give their viewers credible information” about the reality on the ground. They don’t speak about the co-existence between Jews and Arabs that exists in Israel. Neither do they mention that the majority of Israeli Arabs speak against Hamas and its horrendous crimes.

For his advocacy efforts Hadad has already been branded as Israel’s de-facto minister of public diplomacy. But he says he is far from politics, especially at a time when the war is still raging and 134 Israeli hostages are still captive in Gaza.

“Now we need to concentrate on supporting the IDF and bringing the hostages back. Whatever happens next... all possibilities are open.”

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