Israel's Arab and Aramean Christian population has long been an untapped resource in recruitment for the IDF, largely because of threats and incitement against young Christians thinking to join the army, but that appears to be changing as an unprecedented number of over 200 Christians are predicted to enlist next year.
There are over 130,000 Christians citzens in Israel, most of whom identify as Arab, with a potential annual enlistment of 1,400 new recruits. However, only several dozen signed up each year until three years ago, when the numbers started to rise to over 100 amid efforts to promote enlistment in the community.
Col. (res.) Pini Gonen, an initiator and leader of the Gadna youth battalion project for Arab Christian youth at the Defense Ministry, told Walla! on Tuesday that a seminar has recently been opened for 48 Arab Christian youths, including two women.
The four-week seminar includes military preparation and a leadership course as well as visits to Jerusalem, churches, trips to the north and more.
"They arrive with very high motivation for military service," said Gonen. "Just last week Jennifer, an Arab Christian soldier, was selected for exceptional performance in a course operating Iron Dome. She also finished basic training with exceptional ratings."
"I believe that the number of recruits will rise. Already today you can see (Arab Christian) officers at the rank of major in the teleprocessing branch, navy and other units. Even more senior rankings are just a matter of time."
Tawfiq, a 20-year-old Arab Christian who took part in the current seminar, told the paper that his two grandfathers were in the police "and they told me before they died to select the right path."
"My mother was against me enlisting to a combat unit and sent me to study in Italy. I came back and decided to enlist in a combat unit," said Tawfiq. "I'm in favor of the state and want to raise it as high as possible. I will enlist in my own name and in the name of the entire (Arab Christian) community, and I hope to be one of the best commanders."
"I tell all the communities in Israel, you don't have to enlist but don't attack those who chose to contribute," added Tawfiq. "This is my country."
One of the key Christian leaders behind the increase in enlistment is Greek Orthodox priest Father Gabriel Nadaf, a native of Nazareth who heads the Greek Orthodox Church in Yafia near his hometown.
Nadaf has advocated a strong connection to Israel and IDF service for Christian citizens – despite stiff opposition from the official Greek Orthodox church and Arab MKs.
The condemnation against Nadaf has gone as far as the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Israel banning him from entering Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation, and repeatedly threatening to dismiss him from his Yafia post.
Arab MKs have also condemned him, calling him “an agent of Zionism who seeks to divide Arabs.” Nadaf has revealed he has also been threatened with violence, and even death; likewise, his 17-year-old son was violently attacked in Nazareth in December 2013; the attacker was identified as an activist from the Communist Arab Hadash party.
However, he insists that he represents a sizable portion of the Christian Israeli community.
Nadaf has also been deeply involved in a movement to revive and strengthen Aramean Christian identity. Many "Arab" Christians in Israel are in fact members of the Aramean nation, whose presence in the region predates the Arab/Islamic conquests, but who became culturally "Arabized" primarily due to pressure from the Arab world.