Ten days ago Amane Tatour turned eighteen, but today she is not a soldier. She chose to exercise her exemption from the Civil Service, which means that she will not be joining the Israeli army any time soon. Amane is a Palestinian Arab living in Israel. That is one of the few groups that are afforded exemptions from the mandatory universal conscription into the Israeli military or the National Service.
By avoiding service she volunteered to pay the Israeli government an additional 12006 NIS in taxes over the course of her lifetime. No one wants higher taxes, but it beats the alternative: implicitly approving the Israeli policy of linking human rights to civic duties. Unlike religious students, newly married or pregnant women, Palestinian Arabs living in Israel pay an additional 1% tax should they take the exemption option. The tax is incurred every year the subject is of an eligible to serve. That makes 23 years of paying for the privilege of not serving. The revenue gained from the 1% tax goes towards the funding of benefits programs for veterans of military service. Veterans receive one free year of tuition at designated universities and other similar rewards.
Of course, there are options inherent in the service; not every eighteen-year-old will be trained to shoot a machine gun. The National Service is another choice. This alternate program offers various nation building and public works-type jobs to the pacifist segment of Israel’s youth. The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren recently published an article exploring the National Service option specifically in the Galilee area of Israel. So why isn’t Amane in uniform right now?
On her Myspace page she identifies her hometown as “Nazareth, Palestine NOT IL”. In principle, Amane and her peers refuse to serve in the same branch of government, the Defense Ministry, that operates the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The decision not to serve is also an expression of outrage over the relationship the Israeli government has assigned to “rights” and “duties”. Regardless of the ostensibly conciliatory National Service option, the concept of rewarding the performance of a civic duty with internationally acknowledged inherent human rights is unsanctionable.
The immanent success in Amane’s future is apparent to everyone she meets. This is a young woman with creative prowess and a lust for life. In her summer away from school she is writing and directing a film with help from one local NGO and focusing more on her burgeoning rap career. For the last four years she has been a youth facilitator and a leader in the Arab Association for Human Rights’ Haq youth group. As one half of rap duo “Dmar” (Arabic for destruction), she has the stage presence of a seasoned professional performer and the charisma of a star in the making. Amane and her partner, Mai Zarqawi, formed the band in 2005 when they were both under the age of 15. This video of a performance Dmar gave in June 2009 currently has 5,693 hits. That means that roughly one in ten people in Nazareth have seen it. Committing to Civil Service would rob her of some very formative years, and it should not be required of her in exchange for basic human rights.
Being from a small village north of Nazareth, the Arab capital of Israel, Amane has grown up around people who have reason to harbor ill will towards the Israeli government. The issue of national loyalty is tricky in Nazareth. Her struggle is indicative of the difficulty many of her peers are having with this decision. Choose the attractive benefits package and a brief service or a tax penalty and freedom? On one hand, doing the National Service can be a good way to help out the community. One such program is the Nazareth Summer Camp. It is staffed by servicemen and women, and services the kids of Nazareth. On the other hand, committing to National Service could be seen as a betrayal of national identity. These people are indigenous to the land. This is Palestinian Arab minority of Israel; it is absurd to ask them to serve in the same army that oppresses their uncles, aunts, sisters, and brothers in the West Bank and Gaza. So, in a town like Nazareth where politics and history is everything, Amane’s choice was easy. There was no conceivable way she could commit to serve.
Last week the Arab Association for Human Rights co-sponsored an evening of music, poetry, and dance to bring awareness to the effects of the Isreali conscription laws. The other sponsors were Baladna, the Initiative for Arab Youth Action, and Women Against Violence. “I am not a soldier” the theme for the evening permeated every performance. Though the content was generally political, the tone was light. One firebrand speaker called for an end of Israeli oppression; he was followed by a guitar player eager to crack jokes between songs. The show climaxed with a moving performance of the Palestinian national anthem by the Haq Orchestra for Art; a group the HRA-sponsors. The audience showed up to have a nice night out and to display solidarity. They got to do both. This was a public outcry for the end of such a repugnant policy and quite the occasion for Nazarene socialites. 250-odd people were in attendance for the event. As the crowd shuffled out of Cinematech near Mary’s Well in ancient Nazareth, there were many glowing smiles displaying the strong sense of community which really was the star of the show.
A community united against this oppressive policy last night, but their message was overshadowed by national political news. It was announced last week that Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party would be leaving the ruling coalition after only 70 days. The division was apparently caused by intractable differences on the issue of universal conscription. Mofaz’s secular Kadima wants to end the exemption for ultra-orthodox religious students. Benjamin Netanyahu, PM and head of Likud, decided instead to honor his commitment to the orthodox, religious parties in his coalition, who support the exemption for religious students. There was no mainstream political party advocating an end to the 1% tax penalty for Palestinian Arabs living in Israel who seek exemption. There were, however, many conservative politicians calling for an end to the Arab exemption option in the first place. Mainstream Israeli politics are one standard deviation away from the Arab public’s desires on the spectrum of opinions on this issue. In Nazareth, life goes on. The rewards for serving look more and more attractive to eighteen-year old Palestinian Arabs. But, understanding that in order to receive them they must tangentially approve an unlawful and immoral policy happens to be a powerful motivator as well.
For these reasons the Arab Association for Human Rights seeks your support. Help us reach out to young people like Amane. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, read our new Intern Blog to keep track of future events like this one!