"Anyone who does national service will become a leper and Arab society will throw him up from its midst," the minister told Ynet.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee of Israeli Arabs, one of the conference's organizers, is taking a more moderate stance, and says it is carrying out an unending argument with those who chose to volunteer, and has launched a campaign to minimize the number of volunteers.
During the last year, the number of Arab-Israeli volunteers for national service doubled from 280 to 560. "If we did not launch our campaign, we would be seeing a number several times higher, and maybe even thousands would choose to volunteer for national service," the Committee's CEO, Abd Anbatawi said.
The conference, which took place in Haifa at the initiative of the Balanda (our country) charity in which many Arab youths from across the political spectrum are involved, also saw Knesset Members, heads of the Arab community, and youths from various political parties take part. Participants sought to protest the government initiative which is expected to make waves by the start of January 2008.
MK Zahalka said that former prime minister Ariel Sharon "suggested in the past that service be mandatory. We protested then and said we would ensure that initiative failed. In the government, they saw there was bitter opposition, and they decided to change direction towards national service. It's clear to us that this is an exercise and it's clear to us that volunteering will eventually become compulsory duty," he said.
'Other minorities also exempt from service'
Zahalka and members of his party, who set up the Balanda charity, are leading the campaign against volunteering for national service in Israel. "It's our right as a national minority to safeguard our identity. Actually, we see volunteering for service as an attempt to Israelify our youths, and we have a major issue with that," he said.
Addressing the question of how as citizens living in Israel Israeli Arabs choose to contribute to the state, Zahalka said, "we certainly contribute to society. We are a working society, we pay our taxes and we are loyal to the law. In every democratic country the rights are absolute and the duties are relative… in the past, other minorities in the country have been absolved from serving in the IDF."
The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee of Israeli Arabs is also seeking to unify the ranks through opposition to national service. But they are not seeking to throw out those who choose to volunteer. "We totally reject national service in all forms, but on the other hand we also are willing to consider fostering projects of the culture of volunteering towards (Arab) society," Anbatawi said. Those who chose to volunteer, he said, "need to be argued with and explained the severity of the act of this volunteering, but not be thrown out of our midst."
Two months ago, the government approved the setting up of a new project to encourage volunteers for national service. Project Head Dr Reuven Gal said then he aimed to place an emphasis on new fields of volunteering, including the recruitment of Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. Dr Gal added that there were understanding with some of the local Arab authorities and a few Haredi rabbis on this issue. The aim, among others, is to have more Arab volunteers serve in the Arab sector, and close to their homes.
The initiative provoked bitter opposition among Arabs, and last month a new campaign was launched to dissuade Arab youths from volunteering, since this type of service is equivalent to IDF service.