JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel is to start sending call-up papers to all Christian Arabs of military service age, the army said on Tuesday, April 22, 2014, angering Arab lawmakers who accused the government of seeking to divide Christians from Muslims.
Military service will remain voluntary for Israel's 130,000 Christian Arabs as it is for its more than 1.3 million Muslim Arabs but only Christians will receive the call-up papers, an army spokesman said.
"The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) in coming weeks will begin to distribute to all potential Christian recruits voluntary enlistment forms," the spokesman said.
"Since the service of the Christian population in Israel is not obligatory by law, potential recruits are not required to respond to the invitation."
But commanders hope that the routine sending out of call-up papers will help boost the numbers volunteering from around 100 a year at present to 1,000, army radio reported.
"Under these new arrangements, they will no longer have to submit their own enlistment request and expose themselves to potential pressure from their Christian coreligionists or from Muslims, who are overwhelmingly hostile to conscription," the radio said.
The move came just two months after Parliament approved a law giving Muslim and Christian Arabs separate representation on a national employment commission and drew fire from Arab lawmakers.
"The measure was to be expected following the campaign by the Israel right to divide Christians from their own people by encouraging them to think that they are not Arabs," said Mr Bassel Ghattas, a Member of Parliament for the communist Hadash party.
He urged Christians who received call-up papers to "send them back or publicly burn them, because the next step could be compulsory military or community service".
Not all Christian Arabs are opposed to serving in the Israeli army.
Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from the northern city of Nazareth, welcomed the move by the military.
"Young people in the Christian community need to understand the importance of serving and getting involved in the country in which they live and which protects them, and in which we are full citizens," he said.
Israel's Arab minority, which makes up some 20 per cent of the population, are the descendants of the 160,000 Palestinians who remained on their land when Israel was created in 1948.
They complain of routine discrimination, particularly in housing, land access and employment.