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The latest page in Israel’s divide and conquer playbook: enlisting Palestinian Christians

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Palestinian Christians pictured at an Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum event. (Photo:

Palestinian Christians pictured at an Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum event. (Photo:

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.

Artist Haitham Haddad. (Photo: Allison Deger)

Artist Haitham Haddad. (Photo: Allison Deger)

“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.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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35 Responses

  1. Kay24 on May 3, 2014, 11:38 am

    Ah the divide and conquer rule. Nothing Israel does is what it seems to be. They are masters of deception. I am reminded of the time they were found to deliberately make sure Palestinians were given a certain amount of calories, just enough not to starve them, so that the world will not look into their policies of deprivation and sending less food into the territories:
    “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”[2] Of course, Israel puts the spin on it that its goal is to prevent starvation. But cutting food trucks allowed into Gaza from 400 trucks a day to 67 exposes its true purpose. Netanyahu’s health ministry has determined that Gazans need only 2,276 calories a day to keep from starving. Thus, that is all they get, except of course, when Israel closed the crossing completely for ten days to celebrate Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), when no trucks were allowed in. Israel’s “diet” program simply does not express benevolence to anyone … except those who deliberately choose to be blind to the everyday crimes against the people of Gaza.” for Political Economy.
    So it this to get the evangelicals and zionist Christians to rally around the rogue nation? Devious no?

  2. American on May 3, 2014, 11:41 am

    As far as I can see the Zionist play book on all fronts is *Divide, *Dilute ,*Distract, *Dumb Down.
    That is pretty much sop for a minority that wants to disperse any majority powers or prevent any other various minorities from uniting against them.
    They reinforce their own tribalism while attempting to break down others tribal leanings.

  3. Citizen on May 3, 2014, 12:14 pm

    Identity politics working at full force. This time, it’s using religion, not ethnicity. There’s always another arrow in the Zionist quiver. By the time non-Zionists wake up, they’re stuck.

  4. amigo on May 3, 2014, 12:44 pm

    Israel is one very screwed up nation.

    It cannot survive unless it changes completely.

  5. ramzijaber on May 3, 2014, 12:44 pm

    United we stand as PALESTINIANS – christians, moslems, and jews. We are ONE. Zionists will fail to divide and conquer. We shall overcome.

    • just on May 3, 2014, 2:46 pm

      Exactly! Nice to ‘see you’ here again, Ramzi.


  6. W.Jones on May 3, 2014, 1:50 pm

    How and why did the Druze get pulled into such an arrangement?

    • Walid on May 3, 2014, 2:35 pm

      W.Jones, their religion dictates that they do for their survival. Those in the US could pass for Christians if the situation warrants it but they secretly hold on to their faith.

      • W.Jones on May 4, 2014, 11:28 am


        I am not saying your answer is wrong, but alternately I doubt that Druze need to serve the IDF in order to survive.

      • Walid on May 4, 2014, 4:51 pm

        W.Jones, as Jon S reminded us, we’ve been over that road once before, so I’ll just repeat my initial post on the subject:

        The Islamic term for it is “taqqiya” which Wiki defines as:

        “… is a form of religious dissimulation, or a legal dispensation whereby a believing individual can deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal or blasphemous acts while they are at risk of significant persecution. This practice was emphasized in Shi’a Islam (Druze are an offshoot of Shia) whereby adherents may conceal their religion when they are under threat, persecution, or compulsion. Taqiyya was developed to protect Shi’ites who were usually in minority and under pressure. In the Shi’a view, taqiyya is lawful in situations where there is overwhelming danger of loss of life or property and where no danger to religion would occur thereby.

        … Because of the Druze’s Ismaili Shi’ite origin, they have also been associated with taqiyya. When the Druze were a minority being persecuted they took the appearance of another religion externally, usually the ruling religion in the area, and for the most part adhered to Muslim customs by this practice”

    • jon s on May 3, 2014, 5:05 pm
      • Walid on May 4, 2014, 4:52 pm

        Thanks for the reminder, jon.

    • JeffB on May 3, 2014, 9:42 pm

      @W Jones

      The Druze were a heavily discriminated against minority. There were a bunch of Druze rebellions when they lost local independence in the 17th century and later. As a result they reject Arab Nationalism, they understand fully well that pan-arabism means they are next after the invaders and the Jews are driven out. Conversely in Israel they get official self rule in the northern part of the country.

      For the Druze Israel has been objectively a good thing. They weren’t strong enough to beat the Turks or the Arabs and get semi-indepdence. On the plus side for the Druze and negative for Israel, in Lebanon the situation for the Druze has gotten better and as a result younger Israeli Druze are not as hostile to what Arab rule would bean.

  7. Walid on May 3, 2014, 1:57 pm

    “… “we are not Christian Palestinians.” Instead, he said, they are Aramaic. ”

    After the Lebanese civil war, neurotic Maronite Christians, which were in minority made similar claims about their roots being non-Arab but that they were Aramaic in general and Phoenician (Canaanite) in particular. The other Christians laughed at them, especially when they reached the height of absurdity that the language they spoke was not Arabic but “Lebanese”.

    Those Palestinian Christians making these claims about being Aramaic, are most probably Palestinian Maronites that are still clinging to the same folklore. Equally silly is their other claim that the language of their liturgy in Syriac is rooted in the Aramaic language that Christ spoke; not even the Aramaic of Ma’aloula that is commonly spoken by the people among themselves there is anywhere close to the language that Jesus spoke. That’s the real brainwashing they are undergoing.

    Before getting overly upset about the handful of Christian traitors joining the IDF, it’s worth mentioning that the first sparks of resistance to Israel in both Palestine and Lebanon were lit by Christians.

    • Les on May 3, 2014, 2:34 pm

      Great logic. If you speak Aramaic, you are Aramaic. Similarly, if you speak modern Hebrew, you must be Jewish.

      • Walid on May 3, 2014, 3:03 pm

        Pakistanis pray and recite the Quran in Arabic without understanding the language, does it make them Arab?

        Hizbullah fighters mostly all speak Hebrew, does it make them Jewish?

      • Maximus Decimus Meridius on May 4, 2014, 1:13 pm

        ”Hizbullah fighters mostly all speak Hebrew, ”


      • Walid on May 4, 2014, 11:04 pm

        Yes, Maximus, it’s part of their basic training.

      • gamal on May 4, 2014, 4:42 pm

        and what of Mehri, Hobyot, Harsusi, Jiballi and Bathari speakers all Arabians but not Arab?

  8. Maximus Decimus Meridius on May 3, 2014, 2:31 pm

    “we are not Christian Palestinians.” Instead, he said, they are Aramaic.”

    Ugh. Reminds me of how many Egyptian Copts adamantly claim not to be Arab, but the direct descendants of the Pharaohs, or how Lebanese Maronites describe themselves as ”Phoenician” when in fact both groups are every bit as ”Arab” as their Muslim neighbours.

    Part of the problem is that ”Arab” is a fairly meaningless term when describing anything other than a broad linguistic grouping. Even a cursory glance will show you that your average Yemeni looks very different from your average Palestinian, and there are major cultural differences too. Most Palestinians probably have more DNA in common with Jews than with, say, Sudanese people.

    The only tangible thing which all Arabs have in common is the language, and even that varies greatly from one country to another. Another problem is that some Arabs – particularly Christians – have an inferiority complex about being Arab, and consider the term to have negative connotations. Hence the desire seek out faux labels like ”Phoenician”.

    That said, i doubt this latest attempt at divide and conquer will work. There’ll always be a few traitors of course, but throughout the history of the Palestinian struggle, Christians have always been disproportionately represented. It’ll take more than the chance to ‘serve’ in the occupation army to change that.

    • Cliff on May 3, 2014, 3:19 pm

      Excellent comment MDM, very interesting.

      You can definitely get the inferiority complex vibe from these interviewees.

    • Walid on May 3, 2014, 3:23 pm

      “The only tangible thing which all Arabs have in common is the language”

      I agree and even at that, you have to spell out that the language is classical Arabic as I don’t understand the colloquial Arabic spoken in the majority of so-called Arab countries. There are some affinities such as between the Syrians and the Lebanese, between the Palestinians and the Jordanians and so on but to consider all 400 million Arabs as one common group is wrong, but the premise is often used to demonize the Arabs by the Israelis and by the Americans such as in Iraq with the Abu Ghraib stunt. Those that are familiar with Raphael Patai (1910-1996) would know what I’m talking bout. He was Jewish ethnographer, historian, orientalist, anthropologists and all around snake-oil salesman that built his career describing all 400 million Arabs as one monolithic group that are pride-driven based on a small sampling he took of Arabs from one country that wrote the book that was required study material for all US military officers being assigned to the Iraqi occupation force and the root cause behind the Abu Ghraib American scandal.

      • Maximus Decimus Meridius on May 4, 2014, 7:17 am

        Ah yes, ”The Arab Mind”.


        The likes of Patai remind me of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who would claim that all one billiion plus Muslims are just one undifferentiated mass of humanity. So it doesn’t matter if you’re an Iranian Shia, a Saudi Wahhabi or an agnostic British Muslim, you’re all the same. No room for nuance. Same with the Israeli/Orientalist manner of speaking of ”The Arabs” as though they were all the same. I suppose they like such phraseology because a – it allows them to present themselves as being the tiny little victim of the seething Arab masses out to ‘drive the Jews into the sea’, and b – because of good old fashioned clueless Orientalism.

        Regarding those Arabs who fall for this kind of ‘divide and conquer’ nonsense, the sad thing is that they do not realise just how much contempt Israelis have for Arabs – ALL Arabs. Even – no especially – those who want to ‘make peace’ with Israel. For most Israelis, Arabs, no matter how ingratiating, will never be treated as equals. That’s not the Zionist way.

  9. weareone on May 3, 2014, 3:49 pm

    Thanks, Ramzi!

    ” We are ONE.”

    Gee, I kind of like that. :-)


  10. annie on May 4, 2014, 3:18 am

    “we are not Christian Palestinians.” Instead, he said, they are Aramaic

    Aramaic is a language.

  11. ramzijaber on May 4, 2014, 9:02 am

    Some of my very good friends are Lebanese. Some of my family members have Lebanese. Some are also Maronite. We are all Arabs. Some may want to run from being Arab. That’s their choice. I am very PROUD of being an Arab and a Palestinian.

    Christian Palestinians have been in Palestine for centuries and will remain for centuries to come. Christian Palestinians are an integral part of Palestinian society and represent a critical pillar of our future as a Palestinian State.

    Zionists are doing what they always did: divide and conquer. They created Hamas to turn it against the PLO. They created Hezbollah to divide Lebanon and grab it’s south up to the Litani. The fact is: they always failed. And their current attempt to divide Palestinian Christians from Palestine will fail.

    United we stand, ALL Palestinians – christians, moslems, and jews.


    • Kay24 on May 4, 2014, 9:20 am

      A united Palestine it should be. Show your racist neighbor how to live harmoniously with all religions. The occupier is not only brutal, but it is extremely devious setting one against the other, so that they can justify their violence, and keep pointing out how you guys cannot get your act together. Character wise, I would describe zionist Israelis like the wicked witch of the Middle East, always causing trouble, mean spirited, ugly, and trying to steal as much as possible, while pretending it is a victim.
      It certainly has cast a spell on naive Americans through it’s zionist media.

  12. ramzijaber on May 4, 2014, 9:26 am

    Some thoughts on Christian Arabs. Maronites ARE Arabs, have been Arabs, and will remain Arabs. In the seventies, Zionists played with the heads and egos of the Maronite leaders and sold them the idea that they will be eaten alive by moslems and Palestinians, and that they are better off in their own state. Of course, the Zionists wanted to get their border up to the Litani. But Hezbollah sprung up and stopped them. The rest is history.

    Let’s look at the history of Maronites, Aramaic. and Arab Christians in general. Arab Christians have always been at the core of change and progress in the Arab world. Arab Christians are in the DNA of Arabs, an inseparable part of the Arab fibre.

    Why I say that? Simple.
    Arab refers to a nation.
    Christian refers to a religion.
    Both are not mutually exclusive.
    There is no conflict. There is no need to chose.

    Some examples:
    – Michel Aflaq founded the Baath party
    – George Antonius wrote the seminal work entitled The Arab Awakening
    – Naguib Azoury wrote a similar seminal work entitled Le réveil de la nation arabe
    – Edward Said wrote among others Orientalism abd The Question of Palestine

    I also urge you to read this link entitled “Arab Christians are Arabs” by Raja Mattar, a Palestinian Christian Arab

    Also this exchange

    And this

    We’re in 2014. Time for mischievous and conniving self-righteous people to stop using religion to divide people.

    • Maximus Decimus Meridius on May 4, 2014, 1:11 pm

      ”In the seventies, Zionists played with the heads and egos of the Maronite leaders and sold them the idea that they will be eaten alive by moslems and Palestinians, and that they are better off in their own state.”

      And then their chosen servant, Bashir Gemayel, went crying to his father (he who had found ‘inspiration’ from Nazi rallies), complaining that the Israelis treated him like a little boy, there simply to take their orders.

      It ties in with what I wrote in a post above (still in pre-mod). However much Arabs (sorry, ‘Phoenicians’) with an inferiority complex might seek to ingratiate themselves with Israel, Israelis will never ever see Arabs as equals. Ever. It also reminds of me what As’ad Abu Khalil wrote: In the end, Israelis always demand more of their Arab puppets than the latter will, or can, ever give. It was so for Gemayel, it was so for Arafat, and it is so for Abbas. When it comes to Israel and the Arabs, it’s all take and no give. These would-be Christian collaborators will be thrown under the bus just as soon as they are surplus to requirements. No matter what they might like to believe about ‘co-existence’.

  13. jon s on May 4, 2014, 4:12 pm

    I don’t think the Christians volunteering for service in the IDF deny being Arabs. What they have chosen is to distance themselves from the Palestinian identity.
    Obviously this project is motivated on the goverment’s side by a cynical desire to exploit Christian concerns over recent events in the region and use those concerns to cause a split between Christians and Moslems. I have a feeling that the initiative won’t go very far.
    As to those Christians promoting IDF service, what they are saying is “look at the threatened Christian communities in Syria, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Egypt. Thank God we’re in Israel”.

    • Bumblebye on May 4, 2014, 10:00 pm

      Netanyahu on his new basic law:

      “”The state of Israel provides full equal rights, individual rights, to all its citizens, but it is the nation state of one people only – the Jewish people – and of no other people. And therefore, in order to bolster the status of the state of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, I intend to submit a basic law that will anchor this status.”

      If you were not considered a national, in your own land, where your ancestors had lived for millennia, would you be willing to fight for the rights (rather, in the Israeli case, the thefts) of those who were considered so? For that matter, what about those among the immigrant population and their descendants whom the state does not consider Jewish? There’s no damn way I would!

    • Walid on May 4, 2014, 10:24 pm

      “As to those Christians promoting IDF service, what they are saying is “look at the threatened Christian communities in Syria, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Egypt. Thank God we’re in Israel”. (jon s)


  14. Walid on May 4, 2014, 4:20 pm

    In discussing the work of the traitor Father Gabriel Nadaf that’s working hard at convincing Palestinian Christians that Israelis are the good guys, she omitted an important detail about him. The renegade priest has been excommunicated by the Orthodox Church Council after he expressed his belief that Christian youth in Israel should fully integrate into Israeli society, serving in the IDF or in the National Service. In fact, he is not allowed to even enter his former parish church to pray unless he’s accompanied by by a squad of IDF soldiers to open a pathway for him among the parishioners that would tear him to pieces for his treachery. Another in his league of traitors is Father André Alamiya. Both Nadaf and Alamiya can’t move around Israel unless it’s with bodyguards. Nadaf’s son has been beaten and Alamiya’s tires slashed.

    Allison’s story makes Nadaf’s effort at convincing Christians to join the IDF appear as just another routine day at the office, which of course it’s not. !00 Christian enrolled in the IDF for a Christian population of 160,000 is a very low number. Another misconception created here is that the ones most vocal against the project are the extremist Muslims. It’s the Christians themselves.

  15. Walid on May 5, 2014, 3:51 am

    Controversy still raging in Lebanon with the Lebanese Cardinal’s planned visit to accompany the Pope to Jerusalem at the end of May. Several politicians are saying this visit, illegal according to Lebanese law, would be helping clean up Israel’s dirty image much more than helping Palestinians with anything. The Cardinal is getting upset with all this commotion about his trip to Jerusalem and is asking people to consider it as a parish visit that the Cardinal has to make at least once every 5 years. He will be going to Jerusalem via Jordan and the WB. All other Eastern Christian Patriarchs, especially the Egyptian Coptic one are still refusing to set foot in Jerusalem while it’s under occupation. It’s being said that the visit was not the Cardinal’s decision but that of the Pope that has something up his sleeve that he wants to pop on the Israelis. Lebanese priests and nuns on pilgrimage have visited Israel in the past without any hassles.

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