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Arab-Israeli leaders support national service programme for first time

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Arab political leaders have for the first time agreed to support a new national service programme for Arab students leaving high school, similar to the national service performed by many Jewish and Druze young people.

Israel’s Arab citizens have been exempt from military service since the State of Israel was established in 1948. Other communities with broad exemptions, such as religiously-observant Jewish women, have for decades participated in a parallel civil national service programme that involves volunteering in a variety of institutions and organisations, including hospitals and schools.

The national service programme has historically been coordinated by, or linked with, the Defence Ministry and the Arab community have, until now, rarely participated.

Joint Arab List head Ayman Odeh and fellow MKs Masud Ganaim and Jamal Zahalka have now backed a new NGO-led initiative that has been piloted for a year with 160 participants. Participants in the programme volunteer within Arab communities, under similar conditions to Jewish and Druze peers in the civil national service framework.

Both Odeh and Ganaim stressed the value of volunteering and the need for alternatives to national service. Ayman Odeh said: “To connect civil volunteering with the Defence Ministry, this is politicisation… Any alternative project in this context is welcome.”

The new programme is a joint initiative of the Abraham Fund, an Israeli NGO focused on coexistence, and the Arab-Jewish Centre for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation. Local Arab municipalities in six towns operate the scheme.

The programme is currently funded by the Yad Hanadiv charitable foundation but the organisers hope to receive funding from Israel’s Welfare Ministry when it is extended to ten locations.