This post might be useful as a background to my article on The National
In the last few months, the Israeli establishment and Government have been working intensively to draft a bill to impose military or civil service on all citizens of the state including Palestinian and Ultra Orthodox Jews (yeshiva students), the two groups that were exempted so far from compulsory service.
The “Pelsner Committee”, was authorized by the Government to suggest a framework that replaces the Tal Law, which allowed extending the exemption to Religious Orthodox Jews from military service. The Tal Law was recently found to be unconstitutional by the Israeli High Court, and therefore forced the Government to find an alternative.
The debate has also shifted from the Yeshiva students to include civil service for Palestinians, and is being pushed widely by the political party of Avigdor Lieberman, which is framing it as a subject of equality in sharing the state’s ”burden.”
Pelsner committee was dissolved by Netanyahu after its recommendations were rejected by Leiberman’s party and Haredim. Pelzner recommended civil service to all, determined it should be compulsory to Ultra-Orthodox, but not to Arabs.
In addition, Likud party approved Pelsner’s recommendation while at the same time, demanded adjustments to the recommendations, primarily the incorporation of Palestinian citizens in the military.
Yisrael Beitenu and Kadima, threatened Netanyahu to quit the coalition if he does not incorporate mandatory service on both Haredim and Arabs.
After Pelsner, Netanyahu appointed another committee that will be drafting the bill. In few days, the bill will be brought to the approve of the ministerial committee for legislations, and then will come up for a vote in the Knesset.
The discourse surrounding the issue of civil service is not new; there were several attempts to encourage it amongst Palestinian youth since the 1950s. Yet, the issue emerged more seriously after the October 2000 clashes between the state and its Palestinian citizens, when the latter took to the streets at the start of the Second Intifada to support their brothers and sisters in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Demonstrations were brutally suppressed by Israeli security forces and thirteen Palestinian citizens were killed. Following these events—after a wave of protest and pressure—the Israeli government decided to create an independent commission (the Or Commission) to investigate. After three years of examination the Or Commission recommended to open criminal investigations against those responsible for the fatal shootings, but failed to direct any responsibility toward the political personas in charge at the time. Five years later, the Attorney General of Israel (AG) decided in 2008 that no police officers or commanders would face criminal indictment. Yet it pointed out the state’s discrimination against Palestinian citizens as one of the factors that led to this clash. Out of the many Or Commission’s recommendations, the advancement of the civil service option was indirectly one (and the only) outcome.
Following the Or Commission’s recommendations, the government appointed another ministerial committee headed by the Ministry of Justice at the time, Tommy Lapid. All the other committee members were from right-wing and extreme-right-wing parties. The committee was commissioned to discuss the implementation of the “Or Commission” report. The “Lapid Committee” report, which was approved by the Government in 2004 recommended, entra alia, the Government should work to “integrate the youth from the Arab sector into the civil-national service and the government will encourage their voluntary entry into the military, police and other frameworks”.
Another committee was appointed by Shaul Mofaz, Minister of Defense at the time, headed by a former director of the Defense Minister David Evry, and another 17 members, most of them coming from the police and army. From here to the implementation, the way was too short. Later on, an administration for civil service was established and its mandate defined to recruit and encourage Arabs into the civil service. Today the government aims to make it compulsory.
All through the process from the Or Commission to the creation of Civil Service administration, the Palestinian community was not consulted or involved in the decision making of such an important issue that will affect their rights. Furthermore, all the Palestinian political parties and social movements rejected this project. In 2008, about 250,000 Palestinian citizens signed a petition refusing the civil service, the largest such act in their history. The Higher Follow-up Committee for Palestinian Affairs inside Israel established a committee to oppose the mandatory civil service, and a wide coalition of youth groups and civil society organizations have worked to campaign among Palestinian youth against the service. The main motto of this campaign was “we won’t serve our oppressor.”
Despite and perhaps because of this intensive campaign, only 2,800 Palestinian youth are enlisted today in the civil service. Every year, about 28,000 Palestinians reach the age of 18, the age of the civil service. The new bill will force all of them to be enlisted.