A new bill is being debated in the Israeli Knesset: compulsory civil service for all citizens, including Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox Jews, the two groups that have been exempt. If passed, the bill would force every 18-year-old citizen who is exempted from military service to serve in another public institution for between one and two years.
Recently, the committee appointed by the government to discuss the issue suggested civil service for all. Whether that becomes compulsory will probably be determined this week.
In 2008, about 250,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel signed a petition rejecting compulsory civil service, the largest such petition in history, and a wide coalition of youth groups and civil society organisations have campaigned against the service under the motto: “We won’t serve our oppressor.”
As Palestinians and as citizens, we have every reason to revolt against the state. Our tools in the international arena remain limited. Since the Oslo Accords, the PLO stopped advocating for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the international community remains incapable of challenging Israel’s “internal affairs”.
For decades, we have conducted our struggle, by ourselves, for the rights of our people: equality, freedom and return. We demonstrate, lobby, campaign, sign petitions, appeal to Israeli courts and produce reports. In the past, we have challenged particular policies within a system that we never believed would treat us equally. This civil service bill might be an opportunity to challenge the whole system.
Israel promotes meaningless soundbites on the issue: “taking equal part in the state’s burden”, or “citizens should volunteer”. But our opposition involves our relationship with the state since its creation, our Nakba in 1948.
Despite 64 years of Israeli attempts to wipe us off the map, to destroy and distort our identity, to erase the history of the land, we managed to remain, maintain our identity, and revive our narrative, culture and unity. Unsurprisingly, this effort has always been seen by the Israeli government as a threat.
Mandatory civil service for Palestinians is a continuation of our longstanding struggle. It is another attempt to remove young people from their identity and bring them closer to the system, and, in the long term, to the military doctrine. Gabi Ashknazi, the former Israeli military chief explained in 2010: he wanted to see “all citizens age 18 coming to one hall” with the military given first choice about who would fit into the army and who would not. Those that didn’t make the cut will be obligated to do other kinds of civil service.
Israel intends to use this project to shift the discussion away from its responsibility to guarantee equality for all citizens. It aims to justify its racist system by putting the onus of 64 years of discrimination on Palestinians for not fulfilling their obligations to the state.
However, there are at least two lingering questions that challenge this claim: how would the government explain that the Druze community in Israel does compulsory military service but does not enjoy full equality with their Jewish military “comrades”? And why have ultra-Orthodox Jews been exempted from military and civil service but receive government funds?
In the liberal democratic concept of citizenship, the rights of citizens are absolute. Obligations according to the same concept are defined mainly as paying taxes and respecting the law. Palestinians fulfil those obligations. However, Israel is now trying to attach rights to only one duty: civil service.
During this discussion on civil service, the Palestinian community was not consulted or involved in decision making on an issue that affects our basic rights, as is required by international law.
At the same time, the civil service campaign has attempted to portray Palestinians as passive citizens who do not want to volunteer and serve our communities.
However, large numbers of Palestinian youth volunteer in numerous civil society organisations where they are welcomed with no loyalty tests, but on the basis of a set of universal values. The challenges we face in promoting volunteerism among young people are similar to those in most societies, especially in an era of wild consumerism and the “NGO-isation” of civil society.
Israel’s patronising attitude that it knows what is best and its claim to care for the Palestinian minority’s interest are ridiculous in light of the continued discrimination in all aspects of life. Israel should be investing the huge civil-service administration budget in our education system, building the missing 8,000 classrooms in Arab schools, as well as investing in industrial zones in Arab cities and developing the 45 unrecognised villages in the Negev. The list goes on and on.
To most Palestinians, compulsory civil service lacks any positive aspect. Based on our long and painful experience with the state, we have all the reasons to refuse this patronising attitude. If the bill passes, it will be a historic opportunity for collective civil disobedience challenging the whole system. Civil service would not be the cause; it would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.