By Noam Amir, JPost-—
The compulsory military draft does not apply to Israel’s Christians, but the values they grew up on and the strong desire to integrate into society has spurred in recent years a growing trend of Christian enlistment in the IDF and other security forces.
However, their willingness to enlist in the army and to contribute to the security of the country can exact from them a heavy price. Christian soldiers sometimes find themselves threatened by their Muslim neighbors and are the recipients of violent attacks. They have learned well the rules of engagement, they are skilled in the use of weapons, however, they struggle to cope with the violence bubbling up in their own backyards and most of them say that they are afraid to return home in uniform.
“Most of the Christian youth are concentrated in the cities of Nazareth and Upper Nazareth and the rest of the Galilee villages,” explains attorney Eyal Paltek, a reserve colonel who volunteered to represent them legally. “They are not exposed to Israeli society, to the mentality and to life outside of the cities they live in. Enlistment in the IDF in most cases constitutes the first time in their lives that they are exposed to Israeli youth and to Israeli society in general. Beyond that, their neighbors in the cities in which they live are Muslims who do not agree with the growing phenomenon of the enlistment of Christian youth in the IDF and their integration into Israeli society, and the employment opportunities that they have after their release. Therefore, these youth and their families find themselves threatened, cursed at and subject to physical attacks.”
One of the more prominent stories is that of Sgt. Majd, reported by The Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew-language sister publication Ma’ariv HaShavua in February. Majd, a soldier in the Kfir Brigade and a resident of Nazareth, was given a certificate of excellence by the prime minister. Just before entering his home when he came back on furlough two years ago, he was attacked by a number of masked assailants who tried to stab him. After he went back to his base, he refused to go on further furloughs out of fear for his life. He told his commanders that the Muslims in the city were trying to kill him.
Several months later, during a family party at his home, rioting Muslims threw rocks at the house. The soldier called his commander and requested help, as the family called the police, who failed to catch the attackers. “Majd, out of desperation, took the law into his own hands,” says Amir Shalian, one of the founders of the Forum for Christian Enlistment to the IDF. “He brought from the army stun grenades, he had a launcher and he shot at them. In the end, instead of helping him, they put him in jail. There you have it, the rioters won. And because of them, today there is a problem, because there is a clear decline in the desire of Christians to enlist.” Shalian said.
Majd was arrested and investigated by the Military Criminal Investigation Division. At the conclusion of the investigation he was indicted, and was sentenced to three months in jail. “We were confronted with a rigid establishment,” his lawyer says. “His commander testified that he was aware of the problem, and testified that he was seriously threatened and the army ignored his distress and punished him. An outstanding soldier who was a symbol to the community. At the time he received the honor from the prime minister, Majd was promoted to sergeant. A sergeant who was attacked and sent to jail. Is that justice?”
The Christian Enlistment Forum was established by Shalian with his cousin in order to help stop the phenomenon of violence. “Unfortunately, to this day, nobody sees how serious the problem is,” Shalian says. “I would expect from the IDF, the state and the prime minister, who came here to give certificates to soldiers, to do all in their power to prevent this phenomenon. Soldiers are threatened, and real danger is posed to their lives and their families. I have also been threatened because of my actions. To hear threats like, ‘you traitor,’ ‘we’ll murder you and your family,’ ‘we’ll rape your sisters and your mom,’ spitting on us in the street, curses, physical violence, stabbings, rocks thrown at homes, and more. These are the threats of people who want to murder. Today, a Christian who serves the country, whether it be in the IDF or the Border Police or any other security force, is exposed to serious threats.”
Additional testimony comes from A, a border policeman. He is not Christian, but a son to a well-known Muslim family in the Galilee. From the moment that he chose to enlist in the Border Police, he found himself not only threatened, but also ostracized. “My family has banished me for the last three years,” he says. “From my grandfather to the last of my brothers. From the moment I enlisted they have blacklisted me, and not only them. If I go into the market, all of a sudden the cashier needs to go to the bathroom. I wait for him for a half hour, he comes out of the bathroom, sees me and goes back in again. Taxis don’t stop, and if a driver stops accidentally, picks me up and then recognizes me – he kicks me out of his cab. I call my barber to make an appointment, and he tells me he’s full all day, and I stand outside of the barbershop and it is completely empty. When it comes to work, there’s nothing at all to talk about.”
A recently finished his service, receiving a certificate of excellence. Because of the threats and the boycott, he was forced to leave his home and move to central Israel. Today he works as a security guard at a government office. “This is not the future that I envisioned,” he says. “I had a scholarship, I arrived for the interview and they asked me where I had been for the last three years. I said, “in the army,” and they kicked me out. I had to go to the US to get a degree. Now I’m a security guard. On the one hand I’m sorry that I went to the army cause my life is filled with suffering, on the other hand, I don’t regret it because I got to do combat duty, including in big operations. Recently my brother got back in touch with me, but I quickly understood that he only needed me as collateral for a loan. The rest of the family is boycotting me.”
Cpl. M, a Christian Golani Brigade soldier, also says that his life has been made hell since the moment he began to dream of serving in Golani. “At the age of 17, after my second draft notice, I liked the Golani page on Facebook and from there my life was over,” he says. “They threatened to murder me if I enlisted and to burn my house down. I was not scared away and enlisted into Golani. In my unit I am treated like a king, but when I go home, I change clothes in the bathroom of the train station. I requested permission to carry a civilian bag rather than a military one so that they won’t know I’m a soldier. And still, most of the residents of my town know that I am in Golani. Taking off the uniform was mainly a way to avoid the curses and spitting from those who don’t know me.”
“They’re scared,” Cpl. M adds. “The rioters are scared because we threaten them. The fact that we choose the state of Israel and Israeli society scares them. They live on a narrative of resistance, even if it is the quiet variety, even if it breaks out only when there is a security event or a military operation, then they go out to the streets. But in reality, they live in Israel, take from the state all of their rights and see Palestine as their nation state. I was not raised that way at home. I don’t go to Balad headquarters to get brainwashed.” One of the people who was supposed to be interviewed for this article is a senior Christian officer in the IDF who promised to talk about the soldiers’ distress and his struggle for them. When he awoke on the morning that the interview was scheduled, he found a Palestinian flag on the door of his home together with a harsh warning. After making sure that an explosive device was not planted in his car, the officer called and asked not to be interviewed. “I’m going to the base for two weeks and am leaving behind a family under threat. I’ll forgo the exposure if you don’t mind,” he said.
“The Christians see themselves, rightfully so, as part of the Israeli society, and as such, they share equal rights and obligations, and in the enlistment of the youth to the IDF, they see a statement to themselves and to Israeli society that he’s just like you in this country,” Paltek says. “From the moment that I began to act, the threats on my life began. After I was interviewed in the media about helping Christian soldiers, my family was forced to leave our home for a week. My picture was spread on the Internet with clear statements. I received threatening messages and they sent me a picture of my home and the town where I live with a red circle around my house. They threatened to kill me.”
In order to understand the depth of the threat, one must look at the direct result of the handling of the complaint filed by Paltek. The police saw it as a real threat to his life, they evacuated his family from the town and together with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) they found the suspects. The investigation found that two Hamas operatives from Bethlehem were behind the threats. A check of their computers found that the pair had previously sent many threats to Christian soldiers.
The phenomenon of violence and harassment of soldiers and their families made it to the halls of the Knesset, which has held four meetings on the subject. In 2013, MK Miri Regev, who now serves as minister of culture and sport, initiated a meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee on the subject. Regev expressed disgust from the violence and staunchly condemned it, but the second meeting on the subject was held only a year later. In July 2015, in a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee chaired by MK Yoav Kisch, he also expressed disgust at the situation and vowed to deal with the problem. But also Kisch got those at the meeting back together for a second meeting only a year later.
Since, the trails of the Knesset on this subject have vanished. “Unfortunately, other than empathy, nice words and understanding of the crisis of the Christians, nothing came out of these meetings,” Paltek says. Other authorities have sought to probe the issue, but with no results.
Paltek is currently filing a complaint to the soldiers’ complaints officer at the Defense Ministry. Senior Christian officials have decided to take action and established “a foundation for the integration of the Christian communities in Israel.” The foundation enables every soldier and his family to have an answer for their crises, and at the same time works to encourage Christians to enlist; it helps enlist them, accompanies them during the service, supports them, consults in the event of violent instances against them and helps them find work after they are released.
The members of the Christian community are hanging great hopes on the complaint. “It seems that the soldiers’ complaints officer, who is studying the subject, understood the great distress of the community and the future potential damage that can be done to all of us,” Paltek says. “What decision-makers do not usually do, the complaints officer likely will. He is now involving the head of the IDF’s manpower branch and other senior officials in order to find solutions and ways of dealing with this unacceptable phenomenon.”
The IDF said that they are doing everything necessary in order to defend their soldiers, including those from minority groups who enlist in military service. Guiding soldiers during their service is carried out by commanders, in addition to the relevant professionals in the integration department. Every request by a soldier to travel in civilian clothing outside of the base is checked based on his residence and personal feelings, regardless of violent instances. Extraordinary events of attacks on soldiers must be uprooted, they said.