HAIFA, ISRAEL // Rake in hand, Zenab Hamad works alongside a group of mentally disabled adults to clear hay from a sheep's pen buzzing with flies. After the group finishes their chores at the zoo, near the northern city of Haifa, she laughs and chats with her fellow workers, most of whom are Jewish, while taking cover from the sweltering heat.
Ms Hamad, 20, is one of a small but growing number of young Israeli Arabs participating in the government's civil service programme despite fierce opposition from many Arab leaders in Israel. The devout Muslim became the first in her family and among her friends in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Acre to join the programme two years ago after failing to find a job when she graduated from high school.
"I tell everyone to sign up," said Ms Hamad, a long brown scarf modestly wrapped around her cheerful face. "The work helps young Arabs in improving their Hebrew, in getting to know new people who aren't Arab and in choosing a career path," she said, adding that she was now considering pursuing a degree in special education or social work. The civil service is part of a new agency formed last year whose aims include a push to recruit Arabs to help them integrate into Israeli society and advance economically.
The programme had traditionally attracted thousands of devout Jewish women who did not want to do mandatory military service, but has become popular with Arab volunteers, whose numbers topped 600 this year, more than double that of last year. Volunteers work full time for one or two years in hospitals, schools, nursing homes or government offices. In return, they receive a monthly stipend of US$200 (Dh735), another $530 for every year they volunteer and $1,700 upon completion. The service also entitles them to the same bonuses as an army conscript, such as tax or mortgage benefits and help finding a job.
But the issue has triggered an ardent debate among Israel's 1.5 million Arabs, who make up one-fifth of the population and have long been discriminated against in areas such as employment, education, welfare and housing. Many Arab politicians, activists and religious leaders have rejected the initiative, fearing participation in a national programme they believe benefits Israel more than themselves would call into question their loyalty to the Palestinian cause.
They also worry that the volunteer programme may one day turn into a compulsory military service - from which most Arabs are currently exempt - that would result in Israeli Arabs fighting against their Arab brethren. Last week, Azmi Bishara, a prominent Israeli Arab, criticised the programme while speaking from Qatar via a video link to Arab youths gathered at an Israeli conference titled, No to National Service.
Mr Bishara, who last year resigned from the Israeli parliament and left the country amid a police investigation into his activities, said the initiative was "Israel's attempt to erase the psychological barriers Arab teenagers have to serving in the [Israeli Defence Forces], thus trying to erase our identity". Jamal Zahalka, an Israeli Arab legislator, has branded any Arab who volunteers for the programme a "pariah".
Young activists are also campaigning against the programme. The Baladna Association for Arab Youth, a Haifa-based group, has spearheaded the protests by mobilising a coalition of young members from political parties and various associations to organise conferences and concerts, distribute posters, stickers and leaflets and post videos on YouTube. The popular Israeli-Arab rap group Dam supported the campaign with a song called, Wanted: an Arab Who Lost His Memory.
The lead banner on Baladna's website blares in yellow Arabic script "I don't serve!" in a play of words that also translates to "I am not a servant!" Next to it is a clenched fist grasping a silver neck-chain with a metal identity disc typically worn by soldiers, inscribed with the words "No to Service". "The fear is that this programme is a preliminary step before a military service," said Nadim Nashif, the director of Baladna.
Mr Nashif, 34, said the people managing the year-old agency had security-related backgrounds, including Reuven Gal, a former chief army psychologist who heads the agency, and Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel's secret service and the government minister in charge of the civil service programme. "I see neither myself nor my son pointing a gun at relatives in Tulkarem," Mr Nashif said, referring to a Palestinian town in the West Bank.
The debate highlights the growing alienation between Israeli Arabs and Jews, who tend to live in their own communities and send their children to separate schools. Most Jews do not speak Arabic and many Arabs are not fluent in Hebrew. For Jews, the army is a highly esteemed institution in which they forge lifelong friendships and future business and political contacts. For many Arabs, the military is often a hostile organisation that operates against their brethren in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials insist the programme will remain voluntary and detached from the country's defence establishment. Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, in a recent speech to Israeli Arab leaders, said the civil service is the "right thing" for the state, for the Arab population and for Arab youngsters. "I speak, first and foremost, of civil service which includes serving the community in which one lives ? why must it be turned into something else?"
Ghanem Shibl, who is taking part in the programme, said it was an opportunity for a better future. "It's a good solution for young Arabs to get the same benefits of a soldier" without joining the army, he said. Dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, the green-eyed 20-year-old relaxed during a break from his volunteer work in a laboratory at a Haifa hospital, where he hopes to one day work as a nurse.
Ms Hamad said she was happy to be able to help both Arabs and Jews. "Both sides need to be better integrated with each other. After all, we live together, don't we?" @Email:email@example.com