Page last updated at 06:20 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 07:20 UK

Bedouin who serve in Israel's army

Israeli troops and border police at Kalandia checkpoint, near Ramallah
Many Bedouin Arabs serve in the Israeli army and security forces

By Rachid Sekkai
BBC Arabic Service, northern Israel

The traditional view of the Arab-Israeli conflict is of Jews fighting Muslims. But that image does not always reflect the truth.

In fact, there are thousands of Muslim Bedouin who serve in the Israeli army, or IDF, and even bear arms against their fellow Muslims in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

They do so although it is not compulsory for them to serve in the Israeli military, as it is for most Israeli Jews, and sometimes military service comes with a price tag.

"I will do whatever is required from me to do the job with the full faith in the service of the Israeli state," asserts Maj Fehd Fallah, a Bedouin from the village of Saad in the Israeli occupied Golan.

He is happy to perform his duty, whoever he may have to fight against.

Funeral for members of the Heib Bedouin clan, killed in a Hezbollah ambush in Southern Lebanon in 1995
Bedouin have fought and died alongside Jewish Israelis in the army

"Yes, I have fought against Muslims in Gaza," he says. That includes Israel's three-week Operation Cast Lead which began in December last year.

"And I would fight again if I had to," he added. "Israeli Muslims who don't serve in the IDF should be ashamed for not serving their country."

Israel's Bedouin are a Muslim, Arabic-speaking group. Although these formerly nomadic people were once considered part of the Palestinian nation, most of them are now proud to call themselves Israelis.

Co-operation between Jews and Bedouin began before the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948.

In 1946, tribal leader Abu Yusuf al-Heib sent more than 60 of his men to fight alongside Zionist forces against their Arab neighbours in Galilee.

More than 60 years on, Maj Fallah's devotion to the Jewish state was unequivocal. He even refused to be interviewed by me in Arabic, insisting: "I have better command of Hebrew."

Military service is a family tradition in many Bedouin villages, especially those located in the north of Israel.

During my conversation with Maj Fallah, two men were standing listening to us. They were his cousins and both wore the uniform of the IDF.

"It's a legacy - it's something that has been passed on from generation to generation in my family," Maj Fallah explains.

"My father and his father served in the army too."

Potential conflict

The Israeli army does not publish statistics about the exact number of non-Jewish enlisted soldiers, although it says hundreds of non-Jewish Israeli citizens - Muslims, Christians and Druze - join up every year.

Their numbers have grown rather than decreased since the controversial military assault on Gaza.

When I was in the army, they said it would be easy for me to get the job. I applied for a lot of things but it wasn't easy
Maher, Bedouin recruit

The Israeli military official responsible for minorities is Col Ahmed Ramiz.

He is Druze, another Arabic-speaking ethnic group with a presence in Israel and other parts of the Middle East.

He told me that the main obligation for any citizen of Israel "is to defend his country and to serve in the IDF".

How does this square with Israel's status as the world's only Jewish state? Why should Muslims apply - and why should Israel accept them? He explained the compromise in the following terms.

"We have decided that, due to the potential conflict between the Muslim person's national identities and their status as Israelis, we don't make it compulsory for Muslims to join the IDF," Col Ramiz said.

Muslims could work in every unit of the army, even elite units, although a Bedouin recruit recently applied to join the pilot's course and was declined.

"He didn't meet the specific requirements and various personality tests," the colonel told me, and denied it was anything to do with his ethnicity or religion.

But the pride shown by someone like Maj Fallah is not shared by all Bedouin soldiers who have signed up to the Israeli military.

Many young Bedouin join up to better their prospects in terms of education and work rather than national pride. Some are also sensitive to the fact that among other Muslim Arab communities military service is seen as a badge of shame.

Accused of treachery

Maher is a part-time physical education teacher in his 20s, who served in the military in the Education Unit.

"When I was in the army, they said it would be easy for me to get a job. I applied for a lot of things but it wasn't easy," Maher told me when I met him on the family farm near Nazareth.

"Muslim employers don't want me because I had been in the army and the Jews prefer to give jobs to other Jews," he explained.

"In my village it can be difficult but people are not hostile as in other places."

One of those places is the nearby town of Um al-Fahm, whose residents, like the Bedouin, are considered Israeli Arabs, but who continue to have close ties with the wider Palestinian community in the occupied territories and the post-1948 diaspora.

Such people make up the majority of Israel's 1.5 million non-Jewish Arab community, with the Bedouin accounting for less than 200,000 of that number.

Maher tells me he tries to avoid wearing his uniform in the non-Bedouin Arab villages to avoid being called a traitor and risking verbal and physical abuse.

Maher and other young serving Bedouin soldiers have described to me a feeling of being trapped.

On the one hand, they have to do military service, or non-military community service, to be eligible for government help towards education fees or for family allowances, on the other they run the risk of marginalisation from other non-Jews.

As Maher put it: "We are damned if we serve, and we are damned if we don't serve."

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