Military service is compulsory for men and women in Israel, although ultra-Orthodox men and some women can gain exemptions.
Anyone who persuades a Christian Arab in Israel not to volunteer for military service or to desert once they have joined could face prison according to a new law.
The Israeli Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has passed a bill mandating a jail sentence for such an offence, infuriating Arab politicians in the country.
The Joint List of Arab parties, which opposes the bill passed last week, says that it had been promised that controversial legislation would not be discussed during the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
But the committee debated the proposals while the Arab Knesset Members (MKs) were absent.
Military service is compulsory for men and women in Israel, although ultra-Orthodox men and some women can gain exemptions. Arab citizens, of which there are 1.3 million in Israel, are not compelled to serve but can volunteer to do so. There are around 100,000 Christian Arabs in the country.
Arab MKs argue that the law undermines debate in Arab society about whether or not Christians should join the military. “Everyone has the right to express their opinion, especially in view of the disagreement in the Christian community on joining the army,” said MK Osama Saadia (Joint List).
“The fact that they held the discussion despite the agreement not to do so is suspicious and inapropriate,” he told Haaretz.
Nirit Moskovich of the NGO Social Guard, who attended the committee’s discussion, criticised the move. “On a day when many important debates were canceled because of Id al-Fitr, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee held a meeting with Jewish MKs only and unanimously approved a bill that seriously violates Arab citizens’ freedom of expression,” she said.
Under current law, anyone who persuades someone to desert during compulsory military service, or anyone who aids a deserter or gives him shelter, can be given a prison sentence of three to 15 years.
A supporter of Christian Arabs taking part in military service, Shadi Halul, criticised the Arab MKs and said that young Christians were not adequately protected from threats under current law.
“The Arab MKs write letters and incite [Christians] against joining the army,” he said. “We need this bill to protect the soldiers.”