One of the volunteers is Capt. Arin Shaabi, a 28-year-old Christian from Nazareth, the town of Jesus' boyhood and the center of Arab Christian life in Israel. She enlisted in 2010, after completing her law studies. Since 2011, she's been a prosecutor in a West Bank military court, in the thick of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Shaabi identifies as a Christian and an Israeli, and has a tattoo of a cross inked into her left hand. She said she helps defend the Holy Land and isn't troubled by prosecuting Palestinians on security charges often linked to Palestinian nationalism.
"I stand by what I do, 100 percent," said Shaabi. "I don't have dilemmas."
She's paid a personal price, including harassment in Nazareth, a city of 80,000 people, 70 percent of them Muslims.
An assailant once threw a rock at her car. When leaving her father's house for her military base, she'd wear civilian clothes over her uniform to avoid being targeted. She says fear of a community backlash is keeping down the number of recruits.
A few months after signing up, she joined her mother Dina in Upper Nazareth, a predominantly Jewish city of 50,000 built on a hill overlooking Nazareth. Dina, one of several thousand Arabs in Upper Nazareth, said she is proud of her daughter's army service, but that it has hurt the family's standing the community.
In the fall, Father Nadaf and several Christian army veterans set up the Forum for the Recruitment of Christians, with the aim of doubling the number of recruits over six months, said Khalloul, a lieutenant in the paratrooper reserves. The Forum received backing from Im Tirtzu, a neo-Zionist group.
Earlier this month, Khalloul told a parliament committee looking into the possible conscription of Christians that Israel should not view them as part of the Arab minority. "We are hostages" of that community, he said.
Such talk has riled up Arab community leaders. Pro-recruitment Arabs accuse community leaders of inciting their brethren against them,
"What began with a blood-soaked rag that was placed at the entrance of my house continues with a YouTube clip that portrays me as a Zionist agent, a traitor," Nadaf told Sunday's conference at a hotel in Upper Nazareth.
Nadaf and the local communist movement have traded accusations, with each side saying the other started a brawl in which the priest's 17-year-old son and a member of the rival camp were injured. Police are still investigating.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a message of support to Nadaf and his supporters, promising to "bring to justice anyone who tries to prevent you from enlisting."
Azmi Hakim, who heads the Greek Orthodox council in Nazareth and opposes enlistment, denied that the anti-recruiting side uses inflammatory language. He said Israeli police have tried to intimidate him by summoning him for questioning three times.
Hakim said a majority of Christians oppose army service, but that he is worried the recruitment campaign will have staying power because it has government backing.
Hakim dismissed the hopeful talk of integration, arguing that the Druze continue to suffer official discrimination just like other Israeli Arabs. "As Muslims, as Christians, as Druze, we are as a people suffering from the government," he said.
Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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