Was 'Excluded' the Wrong Word?

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reporting about Israel and the Middle East is an important but thankless task. A Middle East reporting assignment means catching flak from pro-Israel and pro-Arab groups who often see stories through their own lenses.

Here's an example: One paragraph in a Dec. 20 story by Scott Wilson, then Jerusalem bureau chief and now foreign editor, stated: "Except for a relatively small Druze population, Arabs are excluded from military service mandatory for all but ultra-Orthodox Jews, an essential shared experience of Israeli life and a traditional training ground for future political leaders."

Wendy Leibowitz of the District complained that Arabs weren't excluded, and she asked for a correction. But I didn't hear from the Israeli military, the Israeli Embassy or the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), an organization that doesn't hesitate to complain. Then CAMERA bought an ad April 10 in the Washington Times; it assailed The Post, saying that Arabs are not excluded from the IDF.

So I called Israeli Embassy and IDF officials, who issued statements saying the reference was inaccurate and misleading. David Siegel, an Israeli Embassy spokesman, said that military service in Israel is compulsory for Jews, the Druze community (an Arabic-speaking group historically loyal to Israel) and Circassian Muslims, who are not Arab. "Christian and Muslim Arabs, including Bedouins, are exempt from compulsory service in Israel's military," Siegel said.

The IDF has more than 170,000 active-duty members, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. About 5,000 are minorities; of those, about 70 percent are Druze, and 22 percent are Arab Bedouins, some of whom have traditionally volunteered as scouts. Eight percent are Christian and Muslim Arabs and Circassians who have volunteered. Some Arab Israeli soldiers have died in recent fighting, according to Israeli press reports.

That 8 percent amounts to 400 out of about 1.2 million Israeli Arabs; most are Muslim. Arab human rights lawyer Nimer Sultany, now studying at Harvard, said that Siegel's statement amounts to "looking at the exception and disregarding the rule."

Interviews with more than a dozen American and Israeli experts added context. Israeli security concerns are the paramount reason for not drafting Arabs. As Sultany said, "From the perspective of the defense establishment, thousands of Arabs with machine guns wasn't a pleasant idea."

Arabs resent preferences in housing and jobs given army veterans. "There are a wide array of discriminatory policies and practices that are a direct outcome and effect that the Arabs are excluded from the Army," Sultany said.

That doesn't mean Arabs want to serve. Hassan Jabareen, executive director of Adalah, a legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, said: "It is true [Israel] doesn't ask the Arabs to serve. They don't want to serve. It is an agreement by silence. There are Arabs who have served in the army, Muslims and Christians, but it is very, very limited."

Ian Lustick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written books on Arab-Israeli relations, said, "It is quite difficult for Arab Muslims to enter the army . . . but not impossible. Unlike Christians and Bedouins, Muslim Arabs are discouraged and prevented even if they volunteer. Now the army could say there is positive proof by pointing to one or a few," he said, but in practice, if Muslim Arabs were encouraged, they "would be the largest" minority in the IDF.

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, was born an Israeli Arab near Haifa and visits Israel regularly. "Arabs naturally did not want to serve," Telhami said, because "they would be fighting their relatives in many cases" and "the Israeli military establishment never fully trusted them to be loyal." While some Arabs volunteer for pay and benefits, he said, outside the Druze and Bedouins, they are "exceptional and relatively small in number."

To Siegel, being excluded means "I want to join and you won't let me. Anyone has the opportunity to volunteer." To Nadim Rouhana, it is more a matter of exclusion. Rouhana grew up as a Palestinian in Israel; he is the Henry Hart Rice Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and heads the Haifa-based Arab al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research.

"By and large, Israel does not allow Arabs to serve," Rouhana said. But "if one is to say all Arabs or Muslims are not allowed to serve, that is not accurate either. They don't want it to look like they are preventing Arabs from serving, so they take them on an individual basis."

Elie Rekhess, director of Tel Aviv University's Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation, said that Arabs -- " though not too many" -- do serve for "the livelihood. People can make a good living in the military."

The Post's Wilson is firm on his word choice. "It is not merely unusual to find Arabs in the IDF -- it is amazingly rare. Other than some Druze soldiers, who in Israel generally do not consider themselves Arabs, and a few Bedouins, who worked as spies, I did not encounter a single Arab in IDF uniform. And I spent a lot of time with Israeli soldiers. As a class, Arab citizens of Israel are excluded from the military."

It would have been better if Wilson had qualified "excluded" and mentioned the Bedouins. A small number of Arabs do serve in the IDF, but it's obvious that Israel does not want them serving in large numbers or they would be drafted.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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