Onward, Christian Soldiers

by Jonathan Cook | published May 13, 2014

For more on Kafr Bir‘im, see Samera Esmeir, “A Guide for the Perplexed: On the Return of the Refugees,” Middle East Report Online (April 2014).

For background on the Basilica episode, see Graham Usher, “Seeking Sanctuary: The ‘Church’ vs. ‘Mosque’ Dispute in Nazareth,” Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000). For background on the Druze of Israel, see Lisa Hajjar, “Israel’s Interventions Among the Druze: Making Identity Policy,” Middle East Report 200 (Spring 1996).

For more on representation of Palestinian Christians in the West, see Amahl Bishara, “Covering the Christians of the Holy Land,” Middle East Report 267 (Summer 2013).

For the past 18 months the Israeli government has gradually raised the stakes in its campaign to pressure Palestinian Christians to serve in the Israeli military. In April, Israel upped the ante once again, announcing it would henceforth be issuing enlistment notices to Christians who have graduated from secondary school. This time, the Greek Orthodox patriarch responded, sacking a senior Nazareth priest, Jibril Nadaf, who had styled himself the spiritual leader of a small but vociferous group of Palestinian Christians who back the government campaign.

The enlistment drive began quietly in October 2012 with a clandestine “recruitment conference” arranged by the Defense Ministry to which Christian Scout groups, mostly from the Greek Catholic and Maronite communities, were invited. Then, in the summer of 2013, standing alongside Nadaf, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, went public. He declared at a press conference: “Members of the Christian community must be allowed to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). You are loyal citizens who want to defend the state. I salute you and support you. We will not tolerate threats against you and we will act to enforce the law with a heavy hand against those who persecute you.”

The April announcement was the first concrete step toward fulfilling Netanyahu’s vow, though for the time being the recipient will be able to treat the letter as an “invitation” rather than a formal draft notice. The military said it would begin by sending out 800 letters to Christians who had reached conscription age.

As the campaign proceeds, Israeli officials are watching carefully to see how the local Christian population responds and, more importantly, what reaction this effort provokes from the international community and church hierarchies.

The group of Palestinian Christians led by Nadaf has established a Forum for Christian Recruitment, which is advising the government on how to advance enlistment. Nadaf articulates their thinking: “We have broken through the barrier of fear. The time has come to prove our loyalty, pay our dues and demand our rights. Because the State of Israel is our heart, Israel is a holy state, a strong state, and its people, Jews and Christians alike, are united under one covenant.”

The overwhelming majority of Christians appear unpersuaded by such appeals and oppose military service, voluntary or otherwise. But Israeli officials employ a combination of pressures -- arrests, threats of prosecution for incitement and civil suits for financial damages -- to intimidate the scheme’s critics.

Meanwhile, church authorities inside Israel and abroad find themselves in uncomfortable territory, pushed by local congregants to act but loathe to antagonize the Israeli government. Both the Greek Orthodox Church, representing the largest Christian denomination in Israel, and the Vatican are heavily dependent on Israeli good will. Israel provides entry permits for priests and nuns to work in religious institutions, and mostly averts its gaze from the churches’ intentionally opaque tax and property affairs.

That may in part explain why appeals from Palestinian Christian leaders to Pope Francis to intervene during his May visit to the Holy Land have so far gone unheeded. For many months, the Greek Orthodox patriarch had also ignored repeated requests from the local community to defrock Nadaf. A spokesman revealed that senior clerics finally agreed to sack the priest. “We warned him before to keep to his priestly duties and not to interfere in matters of the army. When he did not heed our warning we held a meeting of the church court, which decided to sack him,” said ‘Isa Muslih.

Divide and Rule

Palestinian leaders in Israel, representing a minority of the country’s 1.5 million citizens, or one fifth of the population, view the government’s efforts to recruit Christians to the military as an elaboration of long-standing divide-and-rule policies.

Founded explicitly as a Jewish state, Israel has preserved the foundations of the Ottoman millet system, which gave each confessional group’s religious leadership exclusive control over personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce and burial. Having separated these confessional groups, Israel then granted preferential status to the Jewish community in many areas of the law, treating it as a part of a global Jewish nation and consequently entitled to national rights. Members of the Palestinian community are accorded only inferior sectarian or tribal identities: Muslim, Christian, Druze, Bedouin and Circassian.

Conscription has also been structured around these confessional identities. Israeli Jewish men are drafted for three years, and women for two, after graduating from high school, unless an individual is exempted on religious, physical or psychological grounds. Among the Palestinian minority, on the other hand, conscription has always been a hugely divisive issue.

Druze leaders signed an agreement with Israel in 1956 to draft all males from their community, which comprises one tenth of the Palestinian population. The tiny Circassian population followed suit. Both communities, vulnerable to sectarian fighting, preferred to seek the military patronage of the young state of Israel.

It seems there was little enthusiasm among the Israeli political and military establishments for conscripting Muslims. The Sunni Muslim population, today comprising 80 percent of the Palestinian minority, was seen as a potential fifth column, likely to ally with Israel’s enemies, whether Palestinian fighters in exile or neighboring Arab states. Giving the Muslim population military training and equipment was therefore ruled out.

In the state’s first decade, however, there were hopes that the small Christian community might be persuaded to agree to the draft. A key figure was George Hakim, the Greek Catholic bishop for the Galilee. He founded a Christian militia during the 1948 war, and many of his followers were allowed by Israel to return from exile in Lebanon at the end of the fighting. Hakim went on to transform the Greek Catholic Scouts into a Zionist youth movement, as a political counterweight to the joint Jewish-Arab Communist Party, which was the only mainstream non-Zionist movement permitted in Israel.

In 1958 Hakim considered signing an agreement on military service similar to what the Druze leadership had signed, but found little support among Christians. A photograph in Hillel Cohen’s book Good Arabs, on the early collaborators with the new state of Israel, shows Hakim seated next to Druze leader Sheikh Amin Tarif at an IDF parade marking Independence Day in 1959.

Instead, the Christian and Muslim communities received a general exemption from the draft. There is a provision for members of either community to volunteer, though communal leaders actively discourage such service.

The Bedouin, physically isolated from the rest of the Palestinian minority in their separate and heavily deprived villages, often in the semi-desert Naqab (Negev) region, have been among those most likely to volunteer, usually as trackers. Like the Druze, many were persuaded by a discourse that presented military service as proof of loyalty to the state and, consequently, a way to gain benefits and access to jobs. But in recent years the number of Bedouin volunteers has slowly declined, as the Bedouin come to understand that service rarely offers them escape from social and economic marginalization and strengthen their connections to external political actors, particularly the Islamic Movement.

Israel’s Model Christians

Israel’s intention is to end the current arrangement for the Christian community. Like the Druze, Christians account for about one tenth of Israel’s Palestinian population. Christian supporters of the enlistment campaign hope to reach an agreement with the government that would mirror the one between the state and the Druze.

In return for their conscription, the Druze are recognized as possessing very limited attributes of nationhood: Their ID cards identify them as “Druze” rather than generic “Arabs”; and they have their own education system, separate from the Arab one, emphasizing a narrative of Druze history that presents their community -- and their allies, the Jews -- as oppressed for centuries by Muslim rulers.

In practical terms, the benefits of military service for the Druze are chiefly individual rather than communal. After conscription, many are recruited to the prison service, where most work as lowly warders, or to the Border Police, a much-feared paramilitary force that operates in both Israel and the Occupied Territories. Most significantly, former Druze soldiers get preferential access to the scarce plots of land made available to the Palestinian minority. For many, given discriminatory land allocation and planning systems, it is their only hope of building a home legally.

Shadi Khaloul, a former Israeli paratrooper and spokesman for the Forum for Christian Recruitment, speaks of Christians needing to “live freely [and] rediscover our identity and history.” He highlights the importance of establishing a separate school system for Christians, reviving and teaching in the ancient and near-extinct language of Aramaic, which, like Hebrew, preceded Arabic in the Levant.

Khaloul is the model for the new Christian the Israeli government wants to cultivate. His grandparents were “present absentees,” or internal refugees, expelled in 1948 from the mostly Maronite village of Kafr Bir‘im in the Upper Galilee, one of the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed during and after the war. Refugees from Kafr Bir‘im -- along with those of another Christian village nearby, Iqrit – have battled without success to be allowed to return to their villages, based on a written promise by the army that their “evacuations” in 1948 were temporary. But Khaloul is not affiliated with this effort and indeed bears no obvious grudge over his family’s dispossession. Rather, he believes, exaggerated loyalty to the state is the best route to regaining his rights. He is fiercely proud of what he views as a native Judeo-Christian identity that predates the Arab conquests of the Holy Land.

His family, like many others from Kafr Bir‘im, ended up nearby in the village of Jish. But Khaloul refuses even to acknowledge this village’s Arabic name. For him, it is the ancient community of Gush Halav, and his identity is Maronite-Aramaic rather than Arab. Khaloul argues that the Maronites and Jews share the language of Aramaic and that both communities suffered persecution at the hands of Muslims for hundreds of years. Following pressure from Khaloul, Jish schools became the first in Israel to offer Aramaic classes until eighth grade, paid for by the Education Ministry.

Listening to Khaloul, one can understand why Israel has chosen this moment to push Christian military service. “We are part of Israel and it is important that we keep our country strong, especially when our brothers are being persecuted and slaughtered only a short distance away [in Syria and Egypt].”

The 2011 Arab uprisings and their aftermath provoked genuine fear among many Palestinians in Israel, especially Christians. They believe that these events demonstrate how easily communal relations can break down and turn to violence without strong state structures in place. Given its virile army and its financial and diplomatic support from the United States, Israel seems, at least to some, like the only reliable oasis of calm in the region.

Benjamin Netanyahu is keen to play on these fears. In a Christmas video message to local Christians, he referred to Christians as “loyal citizens” and urged the youth to enlist, adding that the Forum would “grant protection to supporters of enlistment and to the conscripts themselves from threats and violence directed at them.”

Hana Suwayd, a Christian member of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, was among those who read the prime minister’s comments as endorsing the formation of Christian militias. “He is trying to sell this to Christians with the idea that Israel will arm and train you to defend yourself against your Muslim neighbors.”

Suwayd and others are only too aware where such scare tactics could lead, as illustrated by a notorious incident a decade ago in the village of Rama in the central Galilee. There, a knife fight in which a Druze youth was fatally stabbed by a Christian teenager led to a campaign of intimidation of the village’s Christian population, culminating in Druze soldiers firing an anti-tank missile at the local church.

Nazareth Center Stage

Palestinian leaders in Israel regard Netanyahu as the driving force behind the military enlistment campaign. It was on Easter 1999, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, that simmering sectarian tensions in Nazareth exploded into street fights between Christians and Muslims.

The conflict had been stoked by a series of cynical government interventions in the run-up to Pope John Paul II’s visit for the millennium. Netanyahu set up two ministerial committees to arbitrate in a dispute over control of a public square next to the city’s main holy site, the Basilica of the Annunciation. In an unprecedented decision, the government overruled the local municipality and backed the efforts of a group of Muslims to build a large mosque next to the Basilica. Planning permission was never granted, and the mosque was never built. But the initial government ruling ensured that sectarian strife mounted for many months, fueling tensions that have not entirely abated to this day.

The latest campaign to recruit Christians to the military is seen as an extension of Netanyahu’s earlier efforts. And again Nazareth, the effective capital of Palestinian citizens of Israel, has been thrust onto center stage. Home to the largest community of Christians in Israel, the city of 85,000 also has a two-thirds Muslim majority. Sectarian conflict here reverberates throughout the Palestinian minority.

The main political parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel have staged protests in the city, including one in April at which youths dressed as soldiers and carried toy rifles. They declared the area a closed military zone, setting up barbed wire and a mock checkpoint. The “soldiers” then acted out a show in which they harassed other youths as a way to highlight what military service in the Occupied Territories entails. A pamphlet handed out to passersby warned that Israel wanted to achieve “the disintegration of the Palestinian national minority into warring sects.”

The Higher Follow-Up Committee, the main political body representing the Palestinian minority, has also called for a major rally against the enlistment drive on May 17. Other leaders have urged Christian youngsters publicly to burn their call-up papers.

In addition to the Forum for Christian Recruitment, Nadaf’s followers have established in Nazareth the first joint Christian-Jewish political movement, called Bnei Habrit, or Children of the Covenant. It is led by Bishara Shlayan, a former merchant navy captain, whose uncle, Ihab, is the Defense Ministry’s adviser on Christian issues. Ihab Shlayan initiated the October 2012 conference to encourage Christian Scouts to join the military.

The party’s public platform is so far largely restricted to encouraging Christian enlistment and supporting Israel as a Jewish state. It has also launched a plan to erect a 100-foot statue of Jesus -- modeled on Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer -- on the Mount of Precipice, overlooking the city. The tourism minister, Uzi Landau, is reported to have given the project his blessing. Shlayan says the statue will be a “symbol of love and peace.”

From the start Israeli officials have sought to make examples of any prominent opponents of the enlistment drive.

Leaders from the Christian community in Nazareth heavily criticized the government’s original recruitment conference and Nadaf’s participation after details emerged in late 2012. Abir Kopty, a former Nazareth councillor and prominent blogger, and ‘Azmi Hakim, then head of the Greek Orthodox council, the Orthodox community’s political leadership, were called soon afterward for interrogation by the Shinbet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service. They were accused of incitement to violence and told to sign statements promising not to refer to Nadaf by name again. In what appeared to be an attempt at further intimidation, they were required to provide a DNA sample -- in violation of Israeli law, according to Adalah, a legal organization for the Palestinian minority.

Israel’s Palestinian Knesset members have also rounded on Nadaf and his supporters, accusing them of being collaborators. Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and head of the Knesset’s interior committee, responded by calling the MKs “Trojan horses” and urged the police to investigate them for incitement against Nadaf. The MKs’ parliamentary immunity has so far scotched such efforts. But Hakim and the Greek Orthodox council are now facing a civil action for harassment and defamation from Nadaf, who is suing each for $170,000.

Other protests have also been treated with the “heavy hand” promised in 2013 by Netanyahu. Police broke up a silent protest against Christian enlistment held by students on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Three students were arrested.

And Ghassan Munayyir, a 44-year old political activist from the city of Lod in central Israel, was arrested in April after posting on Facebook photographs of Nadaf and other Palestinian Christians who met the finance minister, Yair Lapid, to discuss the introduction of a draft for Christians. Munayyir had commented: “For the sake of freedom of speech and transparency, the faces and names of the ‘honorable’ who appear in the following photos are the same ones who want to enlist your sons against your people. Remember this.” According to the police, these words constituted a “threat.” Munayyir was released to house arrest, but only after agreeing to the confiscation of his computer and phone.

Sowing Discord

At the same time that Netanyahu and Nadaf promote enlistment, a political ally of Netanyahu’s is pushing for the creation of a new Christian national identity, echoing the status already assigned to the Druze.

Yariv Levin, chairman of the ruling Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu faction, began by introducing a law, passed in February, that for the first time distinguishes between the rights of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The measure is a minor one: It provides Christians with separate representation in the national employment advisory council. But it lays the foundations for a much grander scheme declared by Levin to create a Christian nationality, leaving the traditional “Arab” one to refer to Muslims only.

Levin makes no secret of his motives. In a February 14 interview with Haaretz, he said his legislative initiatives were meant to “connect us [the Jewish majority] and the Christians…. They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.” 

Hanin Zu‘bi, a Palestinian MK, believes that the enlistment campaign is a sign of the Netanyahu government’s desperation: “It understands that our Palestinian identity has strengthened over the past decade and is doing everything it can to weaken us as a community. Netanyahu is effectively creating a loyalty test -- serving in the army -- that is required only of Christians. The implication is that Muslims are, by definition, disloyal.”

Providing additional help is a far-right youth group, Im Tirtzu. It is best known for waging a campaign of intimidation against “leftist trends” in schools and universities, working closely with senior Likud officials. It was involved, too, with the October 2012 recruitment conference and has been providing organizational and financial help to the Forum for Christian Recruitment ever since. Im Tirtzu is reticent about divulging its funding sources. But investigations by the Israeli media show that in 2008 and 2009 it received donations of over $100,000 from Christians United for Israel, a Christian Zionist organization led by US pastor John Hagee, a close ally of Netanyahu’s.

Despite the government’s aggressive promotion of the enlistment drive, the figures for new recruits are not terribly impresssive. According to the IDF, about 2,000 Christians reach the age of conscription each year. Currently, 150 are reported to be serving. The numbers volunteering since the launch of the enlistment campaign have risen marginally, from about 40 per year to around 50.

In another sign of the enlistment movement’s lack of a popular base, Shlayan’s new party avoided fielding candidates in Israel’s 2014 municipal elections, even in Nazareth.

Nonetheless, the success of Netanyahu’s enlistment campaign is probably not best measured in the number of new recruits it secures. His government in the late 1990s had no interest in upsetting the Vatican by building a mosque provocatively close to the Basilica of the Annunciation. Success could be gauged by the extent of the conflict the proposal generated, not the mosque’s realization.

And so it is with the draft of Christians. Netanyahu does not need many Christians to sign up for military service to sow discord, both between the various Christian denominations and more generally between the Christian and Muslim communities. And with the careful use of legislative changes, the government may think it can gradually prise apart Christians and Muslims, whether they approve or not.

Nazareth’s two recent divisive and closely run municipal elections serve as a warning of things to come. In the current climate, it was inevitable that the two main candidates would be seen by some of their followers as representing confessional rather than political identities: The long-time mayor, Ramiz Jaraysi, of the Communist-allied Democratic Front, is Christian, while his challenger, ‘Ali Salam, his former deputy who ran as an independent, is Muslim.

In the first election, in October 2013, Salam won by a handful of votes, a victory that was overturned a short time later after Jaraysi’s party demanded a recount. Jaraysi insisted on counting an envelope of postal ballots that had not been properly signed by election officials. Jaraysi’s win was secured by these votes, which -- embarrassingly for him -- were mostly from Nazareth’s volunteer soldiers, many of them probably Christian. As claims and counter-claims from both parties mounted, Israel’s supreme court ruled that a new election must be held.

That contest took place in March, and Salam won with a near two-thirds majority in an election in which sectarian sentiments came even more obviously to the fore. Salam has quickly tried to calm Christian concerns, including among his first decisions a declaration of March 25 -- Annunciation Day -- as a citywide holiday and the naming of a neighborhood as the “Virgin Mary Quarter.”

But as Nadim Nashif, director of Baladna, a youth movement in Haifa that is leading opposition to Christian enlistment, has observed, Salam’s actions are likely to be counterproductive, only reinforcing sectarian politics.

Most of the Palestinian leadership in Israel has interpreted the enlistment drive as primarily a renewed effort at divide and rule. Should Netanyahu succeed, he will have reversed the long-term commitment of Israel’s Christian and Muslim communities to unity. That would have damaging repercussions for the minority’s political institutions like the Higher Follow-Up Committee and its secular parties that cut across the sectarian divide.

“Clash of Civilizations”

But there are signs that another, deeper goal may be motivating the government’s campaign to enlist Christian soldiers.

For many years Netanyahu and the Israeli right have cultivated ties to Christian Zionist movements in the US. The two sides have found mutual interests in an alliance. For Christian Zionists, Israel’s support is vital to realization of an “ingathering” of Jews to advance the supposed Biblical prophecy of the end of days and the return of the Messiah. For Israel, Christian Zionists have added lobbying clout in Washington and invested usefully in settlement projects in Jerusalem and other religious sites in the West Bank.

But surprisingly, until recently, Christian Zionists had had no visible involvement with or meaningful impact on the Christian Palestinian population in Israel.

Historically, Palestinian Christian leaders, far from adopting Zionist positions, have taken a prominent role in Palestinian national movements, whether through figures like George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or Azmi Bishara, who led the political campaign inside Israel to end its status as a Jewish state. Religious leaders, too, like Elias Chacour, the Greek Catholic archbishop of the Galilee, have had a profound effect on educating Christian communities abroad about the injustices perpetrated by Israel on the Palestinian minority. Books like his Blood Brothers or Anglican bishop Riyah Abu al-‘Assal’s Caught in Between became seminal texts for many pilgrims to the Holy Land.

Christians in Israel are also advocates for international campaigns against Israel, using their connections abroad, for example, to promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement now championed by some overseas churches. Israel has become increasingly unnerved by what it terms “delegitimization,” with some believing this effort could soon be the biggest threat facing Israel.

None of this history fits comfortably with the Manichean thinking of the Israeli right, which presents Israel as sitting on the fault line between a Judeo-Christian west and the barbarian hordes of the Islamic east. Or as Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, explained, a Jewish state should act as “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Better for Netanyahu and the right if Palestinian opposition to Israel is limited to Islamic extremists.

In so far as is possible, the Israeli right may be hoping to reposition Palestinian Christians on Israel’s side of the divide, through a mixture of financial incentives, legislated privileges and mounting sectarian pressures derived from a presumed Muslim backlash. If such is the goal, then Christian Zionist movements in the US may be key allies, not least because of their deep pockets. Christian Zionists have been involved in supporting Israel for some time through organizations such as the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem and evangelical broadcasters like GOD-TV. The latter network features Nasir Siddiki, a British preacher who converted to Christianity from Islam, and Benny Hinn, the Jaffa-born, Texas-based evangelist whose regular tours of the Holy Land enjoin participants to “experience Israel.”

But signs of involvement by US Christian Zionists in Nazareth and surrounding communities have also started to come to light. The first group of Palestinian Christian Zionists was recently established in the town of Kafr Yasif, near Acre. They are reported to have ordained a former Anglican priest as their bishop. Rumor has it that they are receiving overseas funds. There is the relationship between Im Tirtzu, Nadaf’s Forum and John Hagee. And Nazareth, after decades of central government opposition to establishing a university in the city, is now in line to be the home of a large branch campus of Texas A&M University, funded by donations raised by Hagee. This deal was dropped on Nazareth following behind-the-scenes negotiations involving President Shimon Peres and reportedly personally approved by Netanyahu. Local officials are not displeased, as the campus will bring an investment up to $100 million. The reality is, however, that the chief local beneficiaries will probably be Christian (as was the case with the massive injection of government funds in advance of the papal visit in 2000). Muslims in Nazareth may therefore resent the project.

It may be that Netanyahu hopes these financial ties will give incentive to some parts of the Palestinian Christian population, or its leaders, to move closer to support for Israel, along the lines of the Druze community. Universal backing from Palestinian Christians is unnecessary; noisy divisions within the community would be enough to underscore the Israeli right’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. With religious leaders like Nadaf at his side, Netanyahu can make a plausible case that brave Christians are speaking out while others are keeping a low profile for fear of retribution from the Muslim extremists among whom they live.

This argument, in the Israeli right’s thinking, could be an important weapon in weakening support among Christians overseas for BDS and other “delegitimization” campaigns. But along the way, such insinuations may intensify sectarian tensions between Palestinian Muslims and Christians to a breaking point. And that may be enough to ensure that Netanyahu’s clash of civilizations thesis becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

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