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.
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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