Haitham Haddad is used to Israeli Jews asking whether he is "an Arab or a Christian." The Haifa-born artist and t-shirt designer, who grew up in the Palestinian Christian community, has been hearing the query since he was young.
"It’s in their daily vocabulary–and you’re like 'what?’" Haddad, a 23-year-old whose art draws on religious themes but doesn’t consider himself a Christian today, told me while sitting in the cafe where he works in Haifa. "I think the Israeli community separates Druze, Arabs and Christians since forever." (Many of the Palestinians I spoke to did not want to be identified as Christians, either because they’re opposed to being labeled religiously or because they grew out of practicing the religion.)
Now the attempt to divide non-Jewish minorities within Israel is intensifying. The latest manifestation of the drive is the Israeli military’s announcement last month that all potential Palestinian Christian recruits would receive voluntary enlistment notices. Coupled with recent Knesset legislation that would formally divide Christians and Muslims on a labor representation committee, the steps point to how Israeli officials are trying to enshrine and harden sectarian differences within the Palestinian community. Christians make up 160,000, or about 10 percent, of a total of 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel–the descendants of those who managed to stay within Israel’s borders after the 1947-49 war, when Israeli forces expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
In recent years, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has courted Palestinian Christians to serve. The IDF says about 100 Christian citizens currently serve in the army, with more working in "national service," an alternative way of serving the state by working in civilian settings. The military said last year that they saw an increase in recruits from the Christian community.
And on April 22, the IDF took a step towards further upping the number of Christians serving by announcing it would send out information and enlistment notices to all Christians of military age. (Men between the ages of 18 and 25 and women of 17 to 20 must serve in the IDF.) Driving Christian enlistment is a combination of factors including employment discrimination against those who don’t serve in the army–which is illegal but happens anyway–and a desire for integration. Still, the number serving is relatively small compared to the pool of recruits.
"This change will constitute another step in the integration and connection of the Christian population with the IDF," Brigadier General Gadi Agmon said in a statement e-mailed to reporters. The drive for recruitment has garnered the support of many in the Israeli establishment, including Shimon Gapso, the mayor of Nazareth Illit, who has attracted attention for his efforts to ban Christmas trees in his city.
While not compulsory, the sending out of enlistment notices has touched a nerve in the Palestinian Christian community. Most Palestinian Christians consider themselves a core part of the Palestinian people, and are vehemently opposed to serving for a military that destroyed Palestinian society in 1948 and occupies the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. "They feel its a betrayal, they’re going to shoot people in the West Bank tomorrow," said Majd Kayyal, a Palestinian journalist from Haifa and the editor of Adalah’s website, when asked about how the community reacts to those who choose to serve.
Some Christian leaders have come out strongly against the new initiative. In late April, Ma’an News reported that two community leaders–Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna and former Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah–issued a call for youth to "tear" up their notices, "throw them away and not to engage with them in any way." And Hadash, the Arab-Jewish left-wing party, has organized public events to drum up opposition to the effort.
"The Israelis are using the Christians in order to hit the unity of the Palestinians," said Abir Kopty, a Palestinian activist who was born Christian. "They have done it with the Druze, and now they want to do it with the Christians." The Druze, a Middle Eastern religious sect, have been required to serve in Israel’s military since 1956, though some Druze youth have refused service in recent years.
Kopty, a former City Councilwoman in Nazareth, said that Israel wants to employ Christians as a propaganda tool in the fight against international criticism of the state and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. "They want to use Palestinians within Israel as the card that shows that Israel is not an apartheid [state], that Israel is not a racist country, it’s a democracy," she told me in a phone interview.
Israel is particularly sensitive to criticism of their efforts targeting Christians. In June 2013, Kopty was summoned for questioning by the Israeli police because she wrote a blog post criticizing efforts to recruit Christians. And earlier this week, a Palestinian citizen was placed under house arrest for posting a Facebook status against the recruitment drive, +972 Magazine’s Edo Konrad reported. The citizen, Ghassan Munair, posted a picture of Finance Minister Yair Lapid alongside Orthodox Christian leader Father Gabriel Nadaf, who has been the leading community supporter of enlistment, and wrote: "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."
Nadaf, the head of the Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum, has held meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push for Palestinian Christian enlistment and has also met with families to encourage their youth to serve. "Our goal is to guard the Holy Land and the State of Israel. We have broken the barrier of fear – the state deserves that we do our part in defending it. Those who oppose the integration of the Christian community in the institutions of state do not walk in the path of Christianity," Nadaf said in a statement after meeting with Netanyahu last August. A polarizing figure, Nadaf has said he has gotten death threats, and his son was beaten up last year, reportedly by a Hadash activist opposed to Christian enlistment.
Kopty says much more needs to be done to critique Nadaf. "He does represent a small minority, to be honest. We shouldn’t brush this under the carpet," she said. "There needs to be serious pressure on the church, so he will be delegitimized in the streets, because he is a traitor in my eyes, and a traitor cannot be welcomed."
The Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum Nadaf heads doesn’t agree they’re betraying anybody, because they don’t consider themselves part of the Palestinian people. When I called the group’s spokesman, Shadi Khalil, to try to schedule an interview with Nadaf–an unsuccessful effort–I used the term "Palestinian Christian" to explain the story I was working on. Khalil immediately jumped on me, asking where I heard such a term and insisting that "we are not Christian Palestinians." Instead, he said, they are Aramaic. He said I was being fed propaganda.
That conceptual frame–Christians are not Arabs–has now been put into legislation authored by right-wing Likud Beiteinu member Yariv Levin. In February, the Knesset passed a law authorizing the creation of separate representation for Christians and Muslims on an advisory council that seeks to document and combat employment discrimination. But Levin doesn’t plan to stop there. He told the Israeli newspaper Maariv in January that he is working on a law to allow people to put "Christian" on their national identification card.
"They are our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the state from the inside," Levin told Maariv. "The Christians are also concerned about extreme Islam, which excludes them."
Allison Deger contributed reporting to this story.