KISSUFIM CROSSING, Israel — The Star of David is the best-known symbol of Jewish identity and of patriotism for the state of Israel.
So it may come as a surprise that a six-pointed star hangs around the neck of Sgt. Yossef Saluta, a Muslim Arab.
The 20-year-old poses proudly wearing the necklace and his Israeli army uniform, a rifle slung over his shoulder. He is among a tiny but growing number of Arab Israelis to defy tradition — and often their communities — to serve in the Israeli military.
“There is more openness among Arab Muslims that are not Bedouins to volunteer and join the army,” according to Col. Wagdi Sarhan, the head of the minorities unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “We’re talking about recruitment of dozens of Arab Muslim youth and we are hopeful that the numbers will grow.”
Four years ago, the number of Arab Israelis who volunteered for military service was under 10. Today it stands in the dozens, according to Sarhan.
National service is compulsory in Israel, with some exemptions — three years for men and two years for women. This rule also applies to the country’s non-Jewish Druze and Circassian communities.
Muslim Bedouins, who tend to identify more as Israeli than other Arabs, and Christian Arabs can voluntarily sign up and each minority is represented by a couple of hundred members of the armed forces.
Israeli soldiers patrol on the West Bank village of Arura in June 2014. Mohamad Torokman / Reuters
However, Muslim Arab Israelis have traditionally seen the military as a tool to oppress fellow Arab Palestinians in the West Bank — which Israel captured in 1967 and still occupies — and often avoid military service.
But Saluta does not see it this way — and neither does his family.
“This is my country and it’s my duty to protect its borders,” he said. “When I told my family I want to serve, they backed me up.”
He admits that his friends gave him “a strange look” when he first made the decision. “But after I told them about my experiences in the army they were convinced to also join.”
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