Council of Arab Mayors calls for Israeli Arabs to do national service with municipalities 25Jun12 June 25, 2012

Haaretz  -  24 June 2012

PHOTO: Haggai Fried – An Arab youth from Acre performs national service at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

The Council of Arab Mayors has called for the establishment of guidelines under which Arabs could volunteer for national service through their local governments.

The recommendation was made at a meeting convened earlier this month in Nazareth in response to the Knesset’s Plesner Committee, which is seeking ways to integrate Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into military or civilian service.

The council represents all of Israel’s Arab communities, with the exception of Bedouin and Druze communities. Members emphasized that as elected officials, they have a duty to the public that includes thoroughly evaluating the implications of the issue of voluntary service.

Nazareth Mayor and council chairman Ramez Jerayssi said he and his colleagues are willing to discuss expanding existing volunteer programs in the Arab community, as long as there is full cooperation with the local governments and the projects are under the aegis of the education, social affairs and industry, trade and labor ministries and have no connection to the military establishment.

“We adamantly oppose national or civilian service in its current format, as a program created in the Defense Ministry that represents an alternative to military service, and reject any attempt to legislate mandatory universal service, because civil rights cannot be linked to what are defined as the duties of Israel’s Arab citizens,” Jerayssi said.

“That violates the foundations of democracy,” he added, “which is why we are proposing an alternative that will be acceptable to everyone.”

The mayors’ council agreed to create a panel, consisting of representatives from nonprofits that are active in the Arab community as well as professionals in relevant disciplines to draw up a detailed program for volunteering in their communities.

The mayors emphasized the importance of closely supervising the goals and activities of the NGOs, and of providing financial support to the volunteers, in cooperation with the relevant government agencies.

The issue of national service has been one of the most sensitive and urgent topics within Israeli Arab society in recent years.

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee has come out strongly against Arab participation in national civilian service and has been actively fighting it, mainly because of the program’s connection to military service.

At the same time, NGOs in the Arab community have been working hard to recruit volunteers to national service. The national service administration reports a huge rise in Arab participation in the past few years. Simultaneously, the monitoring committee – an umbrella organization for the country’s Arab political leaders – says opposition to the program is at 80 percent among Israeli Arabs. It may sound like a contradiction but it isn’t. Only a few percent of young Arabs aged 18 and over do national service.

Nadim Nashif is the director of Baladna, the Association for Arab Youth, an organization that has been at the forefront of the fight against national service for Arabs. He told Haaretz the mayors had not invented anything, since volunteering and social activism has been part of Israeli Arab society for years.

Nashif said the mayors should focus on obtaining budgets and other resources for the establishment of social and educational projects for their youngest constituents, rather than trying to duplicate the existing framework for volunteerism.

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