Dan Balilty, Associated Press
NAZARETH, Israel — Dozens of Israeli soldiers respectfully rose from their seats as the Israeli national anthem began playing. The tinny recording of "Hatikva," an ode to the Jewish yearning for the Land of Israel, wrapped up a ceremony, held in Hebrew, during which speakers thanked the troops and handed out awards.
It looked like a typical motivational gathering for soldiers of the Jewish state — except that nearly all those in uniform weren't Jews and Hebrew wasn't their first language. They were Christian Arabs, a minority that has historically viewed itself as part of the Palestinian people and considered service in the army as taboo.
The gathering — a pre-Christmas nod to Christian soldiers, who nibbled on cookies and chocolate Santas — was part of a new push by Israel's government and a Greek Orthodox priest to persuade more Christians to enlist.
The campaign has set off an emotional debate about identity among Christians, a tiny minority within Israel's predominantly Muslim Arab minority. So far the numbers of Christian Arabs enlisting is negligible, but with the community's fate possibly at stake, tempers have flared and each side has accused the other of using scare tactics and incitement.
Father Gabriel Nadaf, the priest promoting enlistment, said Christians must serve in the army if they want to integrate into Israeli society and win access to jobs. "I believe in the shared fate of the Christian minority and the Jewish state," he told the conference, held at a local hotel.
His spokesman warned that unlike Israel, the rest of the Middle East is a dangerous place for Christians. "They are burning churches, they are slaughtering them (Christians), they are raping the girls," said the aide, Shadi Khalloul, referring to the targeting of Christian communities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere by Islamic militants.
Arab Christians opposed to army service — the large majority in the community, according to its spokesmen — say the real goal is to divide and weaken Israel's 1.7 million Arabs, made up of Muslims, Christians and Druze, who follow a secretive offshoot of Islam.
"It's an old Zionist scheme," said Basel Ghattas, a Christian Arab member of parliament. "Christians are an inseparable part of the Arab community, and they will not let this pass."
Israeli Arabs, who make up just over one-fifth of Israel's 8 million people, are part of the patchwork of Palestinian identities created by conflict and displacement.
They are the descendants of those who stayed put during the war over Israel's 1948 creation, at a time when hundreds of thousands of fellow Palestinians fled or were driven out.
Roughly half of the world's more than 10 million Palestinians now live in the diaspora, while the rest live in Israel and in the territories Israel captured in the 1967 — the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, sought by Palestinians for a state.
Of Israel's Arabs, about 128,000, or less than 10 percent, are Christians.
Army service is mandatory for Jews, though not all are called up. Druze leaders signed up their community for army service in the 1950s, and Druze men have been conscripted ever since, while Muslims and Christians are not required to serve.
Currently, close to 1,500 non-Druze Arabs serve in the military, 70 percent of them Bedouins, a separate and impoverished community where the military is often the employer of last resort.
But also among those serving are 208 Arab Muslims and 137 Arab Christians, said army Maj. Shadi Rahal. The numbers of Christians volunteering for the army has remained relatively steady, ticking up only slightly from about 40 year in the past to around 50-55 annually now, Rahal said.
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