Embattled Identities: Palestinian Soldiers in the Israeli Military

Roughly 5,000 Palestinians living inside Israel currently volunteer to serve in the Israeli military. These soldiers’ multiple and contradictory loyalties highlight the contingent nature of identity and the complex relationships subalterns have to institutions of rule. This paper calls for a move beyond viewing these volunteers simply as “traitors,” or, less negatively, as “accommodationists.” By understanding them as marginal agents at the edges of Palestinian society within Israel, their successes and failures at integration through the military richly illustrate the contradictory workings of citizenship in Israel and its limitations. 

Rhoda Kanaaneh is an assistant professor of anthropology at American University, Washington, D.C. She is the author of Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). She wishes to thank Ayse Caglar, Elaine Combs-Schilling, Geraldine Chatelard, Frances Hasso, Roger Lancaster, Annelies Moors, Salim Tamari, Elia Zureik, and three anonymous reviewers for their feedback and comments at different stages of writing.  Research was made possible by a Faculty Fellowship at New York University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and by a Jean Monnet Fellowship at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute (EUI).  Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Middle East Studies Association annual meetings and at the EUI Mediterranean Seminars in 2001.

Full text: 


AN ISRAELI SOLDIER with an automatic weapon slung from his shoulder—a sight everyone in Israel, myself included, has become “accustomed” to—is standing at a gas station outside the Arab town of Sakhnin in the Galilee. As I roll down my car window to speak to the station attendant, I am surprised to hear the soldier speaking a local Arabic dialect fluently. Later the same week, a friend introduced me to an activist in the Committee of Forty, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization fighting for the rights of unrecognized villages; the activist was the soldier from the gas station.

Encounters like this planted the seeds of this study. Each new layer of information unsettled assumptions previously made. Initially, I saw the man as just another Israeli Jewish soldier. Then, when I heard him speak, I thought of him as a traitor, collaborating with the Israeli state—the way most Palestinians view such soldiers. Upon hearing his argument that his service in the army allows him to speak “with a full mouth” against Israeli policies of discrimination, I began to question what loyalty, identity, and nationalism might mean to him—and what they mean in general.


An estimated 5,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel currently volunteer to serve in the Israeli military. [1] Why have these men elected to engage in behavior widely condemned in their communities? Why have they chosen to serve in the army of a state that colonized them and that is occupying and fighting other Palestinians only a few miles away? Although the percentage of these soldiers in the population is minuscule, the ways in which they operate at the margins of their communities and the state sheds light on community and state as a whole. Thus the margin—defined not as a group of victims, but as complex agents at the edges of the social order—sheds light on the center.


Seen from a wider geographic and historical perspective, such behavior is not rare or isolated. African Americans served in the U.S. army during the height of segregation, Japanese Americans served during World War II, South Asians made up the British Indian army under British colonial rule, Irish Catholics joined the British army in Northern Ireland, Algerians served in the French army, and Kurds serve in the Turkish army. Palestinians made up some 30 percent of the Jordanian Army during the bloody fighting of Black September 1970 [2] aimed at eradicating the fida’iyyin—a movement composed principally of Palestinians but also other Jordanians. These are but a few examples of the complex and contradictory relationships subalterns have had to institutions of rule.


In some ways, “studying the margin” has become a cliche in anthropology widely problematized for its romanticized notions of victimization and resistance. In this paper, I attempt to rehabilitate this term—to study not a group of victims related to through paternalistic empathy, but a group of complicated actors at the margins of the social order who are, to different degrees and in different ways, both victims and victimizers. Focusing on the identity constructions and practices of Palestinian soldiers in the Israeli army brings to the fore their performative and contradictory qualities. However, these performative and contradictory qualities are not unique to the margin, though they might be more visible there.


An examination of Palestinians in relation to the Israeli military is particularly important, given the centrality of militarism in the Israeli state. Military service has enormous symbolic significance as well as social and material benefits in Israel, and has been a key institution in the production both of Jewish belonging and Palestinian marginalization. The centrality of the military in Israel has been reflected in academic studies; while the case of Israel has had little impact on the construction of general social theory, it has significantly influenced the construction of the field often called “armed forces and society.” [3]


To my knowledge, this area has not thus far been studied by scholars, Israeli-Jewish, Palestinian, or other. This is partly due to what can be described as methodological nationalism, [4] the fact that many scholars operate from within a nationalist paradigm: the Palestinian nationalist paradigm precludes a focus on such “traitors,” while the Zionist paradigm sees them as “accommodationists” [5] too peripheral to study. Yet the increasing tendency of Palestinians in Israel to publicly articulate their demands in terms of equal citizenship in a “state for all its citizens” has been met with an increasing Zionist focus on the absence of equal obligations for Palestinians—i.e., their exemption from mandatory military service. While the sincerity of this maneuver is questionable, it nonetheless places Palestinian military service—and thus the group of men in this study—at the heart of the debate on Palestinian citizenship and the draft.




This work is based on fieldwork conducted over eight months in 2000–2002, and particularly on interviews with twenty-four Arab men and one Arab woman who have served in various branches of the Israeli security apparatus—the army, the border patrol, and the police force. They served for periods ranging from eight months to nineteen years, many of them in more than one branch. The group includes Arabs whom the state identifies as Muslims, Christians, Bedouins, and “present absentees” (refugees expelled from their homes but who remained within the borders of Israel). Although my focus was on “voluntary” military service, I did interview several Druze (for whom service is “obligatory”), particularly those involved in ending Druze conscription.


It would be impossible to study a “representative” sample of the volunteer soldiers, not only because statistical data on the group as a whole are unavailable, but also because of the difficulty of securing soldier participation. However, I endeavored to interview soldiers from a variety of religious, economic, and educational backgrounds. The majority of interviewees (nineteen out of twenty-five) identified themselves economically as lower or lower middle class, while six others claimed middle-class status. Only two had postsecondary education prior to joining (none had a B.A.). All were living in Arab villages or towns in Israel.


I use the term “soldiers” to refer to what are in fact volunteers of varying rank in the army, border patrol, and police. While distinctions are sometimes made between these forces, particularly between the police (which also handle criminal and civil cases) and the army (especially combat units stationed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip), I have chosen not to focus on these differences for a number of reasons. First, ten of the men I interviewed had served in more than one branch. Second, the policemen interviewed described an implicit requirement of serving several years in the Jerusalem area, where the criminal-political divide is blurred. Third, policemen explained that whether they were detailed to traffic duty in Tel Aviv or criminal investigations in Nazareth, their duties extended beyond these areas in “emergency” situations. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I found that to a large extent questions of loyalty and nationalism cut across these divides.


Identifying volunteer soldiers was easy because they were generally infamous in their communities; getting them to agree to work with me was more difficult. Indeed, the politics of this fieldwork posed a number of challenges. Once, I upset a soldier by scowling when he described “pressuring” a suspect to confess. He almost ended the interview, but instead talked at length about how he saw his role in enforcing the law. This difficulty is not only a conflict between the pragmatics of data collection and my moral judgment. My instinct to attribute a false consciousness to the soldiers or see them as victimized, exploited, or duped by the state and to doubt their “excuses” battled my desire to understand their agency and the complexity of their motivations. I alternated between seeing their behavior as self-interested and without ideological pretense and seeing them as potentially irreverentboundary pushers challenging narrow nationalist orthodoxies. This tension, I hope, breeds a textured and multilayered analysis, not unlike the positionality of these men in their communities. The common solidarity assumptions of anthropological method in this case are called into question. Pamela Ballinger writes of how the traditional anthropological expectation of “empathetic rapport” with informants became particularly problematic during her fieldwork in a border zone between Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia and in a context “where individuals or groups may in different moments or contexts have been both victimized and victimizer . . . [and] may variously inhabit either the (relative) margins or centers of power.” [6] As scholars are increasingly recognizing, many identities, actions, loyalties, and nationalisms lack fixity. The terms “studying up” and “studying down” failed to capture my sense of positionality vis-`a-vis the soldiers; these men are able to exercise considerable power and physical force, yet they do so under terms that marginalize them by definition—in the name of the Jewish state.




When I wrote to a prominent Israeli academic asking for his suggestions regarding my research on Palestinians serving in the Israeli armed forces, he emailed me back:


I don’t know what . . . you’re talking [about]. Except [for] about a dozen . . . volunteers no Palestinians serv[e] in the Israeli military. Druze and Circassians are drafted and several hundreds of Bedouins (and perhaps some Arab Christians) serv[e] as volunteers. However [to the best of my] knowledge none of them perceived themselves as ‘Palestinian.’ If you’re searching for ARABS in the Israeli military, this is another issue.


This brief note presents the complex “naming” politics when it comes to Palestinians living inside the 1948 borders of Israel. Although “Palestinian” is at one level a subcategory of the larger regional identity “Arab,” there is potentially more meaning to one’s choice of terms. The State of Israel has historically avoided the term “Palestinian” because of the implied recognition of the existence of such a national group and its rights.


It is hard to conceive of a “Palestinian” who serves in and is assumed loyal to the “Israeli” army and state—and easier to see them as divided groups of Druze, Bedouins, Christians, and Muslims. A 1949 interministerial committee on the integration of Arabs into the Jewish state “concluded that the main focus should be on one issue: to prevent the Arab minorities from coalescing into one group” and that “the best way to deal with minorities was ‘to divide and subdivide them.'" [7] In the military field, divisions were institutionalized, for example, in the imposition of mandatory service on the Druze only [8] and in the creation of “Bedouin units.” The army has also exploited existing tensions, as when it heavily recruited Christians “to protect the community” after Muslim-Christian violence in Nazareth or after clan violence in B’ayni village in 2001.


And in fact, the state’s segmentation policy [9] has produced new expressions of identity among the soldiers I interviewed: in addition to a few “Palestinian” or “Palestinian Arab,” other terms offered included “Israeli Arab,” “Christian Israeli,” “Muslim Arab,” “Arab Bedouin,” “Israeli Bedouin,” “Zionist,” “Arab formerly of Palestinian origin,” and “My identity card is Israeli, I’m an Arab, Palestinian but not all the time.” These responses are clearly contextual; as might be expected, my own identification as Palestinian likely influenced the answers I heard—both “positively,” as in wanting to agree with me by identifying as Palestinian, and “negatively ,” as in provocatively disagreeing with me by identifying as, for example, a Zionist. But beyond my own interviews, I found soldiers identifying in multiple and often contradictory ways.


Hasan Hayb is the mayor of Zarazir, longtime member of the right-wing Zionist Likud party, and former officer in the Israeli army. Although he defined himself to me simply as “Israeli,” he was widely cited among the soldiers I interviewed as having given an impassioned speech in which he insisted on a “Palestinian Arab” identity. This speech was delivered at the funeral of four Bedouin soldiers in the Israeli army killed by Palestinians near Gaza. In the presence of the large funeral gathering that included many Jewish army and state officials, Mr. Hayb called on the army to refrain from seeking revenge for the death of these soldiers by essentially highlighting their shared identity with their killers from across the Green Line.


Another of the soldiers I interviewed pointed out the flawed question I used about identity:


To be honest with you “How do you identify yourself?” is not a good question—it depends on where I am. If I am at the tax office or in the [Jewish] Mall I’m not going to go around shouting, “Hey, look at me, I’m a Palestinian.” I’m not stupid. There, I identify myself as an Israeli Arab. If you ask me here in my village among the people of the village, I’ll tell you I’m a Palestinian Arab. Everybody tailors his answer to the situation he is in. This is the reality.


The one policewoman I interviewed similarly highlighted the geographic and instrumentalist nature of national identity: “Being nationalist and patriotic [i.e., Palestinian] in this region is stupid and ridiculous. It gets you no where.” Although national identities and loyalties are often deployed as primordial, these statements suggest that they are also conceptualized—and not only by academics—as contingent, produced, and shifting.




Many of the soldiers spoke extensively about contradictions, hesitations, dilemmas, regrets, and changes of mind. Often this was narrated in relation to the outbreak of the first and second intifadas—events that made being an Arab in the Israeli army seem even more contradictory. One of the men started out as an officer in the “Jaysh il-Inqad,” the “army” of irregular Arab volunteers that fought during the 1948 war, and then after becoming a refugee made his way into the Israeli border patrol. Later, during the first intifada, he quit when he was redeployed from the Lebanese border to the heart of Arab East Jerusalem. As a former Druze officer who is now a leader in the nationwide movement to eliminate the Druze military draft put it, “Humans do not make free choices. Depending on their perceptions of the opportunities before them, they can ‘put their eggs in different baskets.’ ”


Amitav Ghosh argues that the idea that individuals owe loyalty to a single political entity is probably historically recent, linked to the birth of the nation-state. Yet human loyalties “are, and always have been, diverse. People are capable of being faithful to many things at once: not just to their families, their kin, their compatriots. But also to their masters, their servants, their friends, their colleagues, and, sometimes, even their enemies.” [10] Iris Jean-Klein similarly emphasizes the “duplexity” of human subjects whereby they address two—or for that matter, more—“discrete interests, problems, or projects at once." [11]


Such “messiness” is particularly easy to discern in colonial contexts. Indians in the British Indian army were necessarily conflicted: “Emblazoned on the walls of the Indian Military Academy were the words ‘The honour, welfare and safety of your country comes first, always and every time.’ And yet what was the country to which a colonial soldier owed his allegiance? There was no political entity to which Indian soldiers could give their undivided, heartfelt allegiance. . . .” [12] The parallel with the allegiances of Palestinians in the Jewish State of Israel is easy to draw; the colonial history of the establishment of the state and its continued definition and vision as a Jewish state makes Palestinian non-Jewish allegiance to it inherently contradictory. Asel Asleh, a teenager from my hometown of Arrabeh, once reflected in a group email to his comrades on his experience at a Jewish-Arab “peacemakers” camp:


For 40 days . . . I learnt about those people that I lived with. Now I know who my friends are. In a few years from now they will become soldiers. They will go to the army to protect their families. But will they stay the same? Will they be the same Edi or Tzachi that I knew? . . . What will happen if they become like those soldiers? And the duty will call them for what they call “protection”—what then? [13]


Two and a half years later, Asel was shot and killed near his home by an Israeli policeman during the October 2000 mass demonstrations by Arab citizens protesting Israel’s harsh suppression of the outbreak of violence in the occupied territories. Also shot dead were Walid Abu Saleh, aged twenty-one, and Emad Ghanaim, aged twenty-five, both from Sakhnin, and ten other young Palestinian citizens of Israel, not to mention scores of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Asel’s reflections did not rule out the scenario of his death, but what he did not ponder was that an Arab might have been “that soldier.” Indeed, many people from Sakhnin initially believed that the policeman who killed Walid and Emad might have been an Arab. During the subsequent Or Commission investigations, the chief of police of the Sakhnin region (who is Jewish) became the prime suspect for killing the two men in Sakhnin. He was also under investigation at the same time for attacking his own police station in an attempt to suppress evidence, and was suspected of having started the rumor implicating an Arab policeman. Nonetheless, the very fact that this rumor was found credible shows that an Arab policeman or soldier was considered capable of firing on Arab citizens. Indeed, an Arab policeman from Dayr al-Asad suspected of killing one of the Arab citizens was forced to leave his village for fear of possible retaliation by the victim’s family.


Like many Palestinians, Asel saw Israel’s security ethos and apparatus as major obstacles dividing Arabs and Jews. Yet at least fifteen of Asel’s fellow villagers, some of them his classmates, chose to enlist in this security apparatus. Although there has been official acknowledgment that the number of recruits among Bedouins, for example, declined after October 2000, [14] several young men from my hometown of Arrabeh joined after the Israeli police had killed the thirteen citizens, including two boys from the village. Fadi, a soldier from Arrabeh who is still in the army, described how he feared for his safety in the village during this period and tried to keep a low profile. He stopped wearing his uniform or carrying his gun when in the village. He described how his superiors promised him housing in one of the nearby Jewish settlements—a privilege not allowed to an Arab for any amount of money in normal circumstances. Yet Fadi also feared for his safety in Jewish areas—even in uniform he was not safe from the “race riots” that were taking place. Many soldiers—Fadi included—told stories of “even” Arab policemen and soldiers being attacked by angry Jews at a mall near Haifa and in Tiberias. Fadi’s loyalties and sense of belonging, like his physical safety in October, were unclear.


Hani, another man I interviewed, had completed the three-year basic service in the army and then joined the police force, where he has worked for the last five years. He stressed that “I continue to support and vote for the Communist party. I never stopped supporting them and their ideals of peace and equality. Even when my friends from the party stopped talking to me, or even stopped saying hello to me when I passed them on the street, I still support their party because I believe in what they say.” Hani is aware that the Communist party has repeatedly and clearly condemned Palestinian enlistment in the army, as demonstrated by his ostracism by his communist friends. At some level, Hani ideologically condemns himself. When I asked Fadi, who served in the border patrol, how he would respond if someone called him a traitor, he said, “To be honest with you, I stop and I listen and I think, and sometimes I think they are right. When I joined, I didn’t know everything that I know today.”


My interview with another soldier, Shafiq, illustrates the contradictions implicit (and sometimes explicit) in strategies of identification. Shafiq is from a village, known as a stronghold of Palestinian nationalism, with martyrs both from Land Day in 1976 and from the al-Aqsa intifada. Shafiq’s family was politically marginal—his father served seventeen years in the army, and all five of his sons became career soldiers or policemen. During the annual Land Day protests, a routine stop on the marchers’ path is Shafiq’s family home, where shouts of “Shame, shame to the agents of the colonialism!” (kul il-khizyi w-kul il-‘ar la-‘umala’ il-’isti‘mar) can be heard and an occasional stone even pelts the front door. But Shafiq is not an outsider in his village. He lives there, he bought land from a respectable family there, married the daughter of another local mainstream family, has friends there, shops there, and so on. Yet his strategies of identification set him apart: “I consider myself a Zionist. I studied history in high school and I read the history of the Jews and of Zionism and that encouraged me to go down this path. I entered the

army with the motivation of defending the state, the law. I am an individual in this state, and it is my right to defend everything in it.”


After minimal prodding from me, however, Shafiq admitted that his mili- tary service was not perfect:


My service had some negative aspects, in some periods. It depends on the leadership at the time. If their horizons are wide, then they don’t differentiate between Jew and non-Jew. But if someone comes along bringing ideas from his home, then he discriminates. Such people behave as though they don’t believe or trust what you tell them, and that is very difficult for me psychologically. But I never gave up and I fought and enlisted those around me to change the bad things, and in many cases I won.


Yet to my surprise, Shafiq sometimes sounded more like an activist from Azmi Bishara’s nationalist Balad party than a Zionist or an “agent of colonialism:”


It is very easy to see that there are no Arab officers at the very highest rank. This is because the state is still considered Jewish. If it were a secular democratic state for all its citizens, then there could be an Arab commander in chief or an Arab president. But recently some Druze have reached very high ranks, ranks we could not dream of before. These men are privy to many of the secrets of the state. It is not unrealistic that in ten, fifteen, or twenty years that there will be real decision makers who are Arab in this state.


Shafiq also emphasized that “I am very different from my father [who had also served in the army]. He is very attached to the idea that he is Arab and Muslim. I am more open. That stuff doesn’t matter to me. I am a human being just like anyone else, that’s all that matters.”


In a few sentences , Shafiq presents a variety of arguments: desire for a secular democratic state of its citizens, Zionism, citizenship as participation in military secrets and war, racism as private rather than institutional, humanistic rather than nationalist or religious identification. These contradictory positions succeed to different degrees and in different contexts in allowing Shafiq to “make sense” to me as well as to people in his village. It is essential to note that both Shafiq and Hani consider themselves to be “nationalists,” a word that always means different things to different people in different contexts.




One of the important but contradictory ways these men sanitized their military or police service was by stressing their efforts to be “fair” and “good” to Arabs while performing their duties. At the same time, many of these very duties were, by their community’s definition, inherently “unfair” to Arabs. Yet all the soldiers I interviewed claimed not to harm anyone unnecessarily or to carry out their missions brutally. Some even argued that they were being patriotic by monitoring and moderating the excesses of their Jewish colleagues. I heard several stories from men in the border patrol of shooting in the air rather than at suspected “terrorists” who had infiltrated the Lebanese border—they didn’t kill when they were under orders to do so. Hani urged me to use a picture of him, sitting in his jeep, pouring cold water from his canister for a thirsty Palestinian woman on a hot day. The photograph was taken in Gaza during a deployment of Palestinian troops under the Oslo accords, and the Palestinian journalist who took the picture eventually tracked Hani down and gave him a copy. The image was clearly cherished by Hani, who otherwise spoke of nightmares from the “things you see in the army but you have to keep quiet about.”


Bassam told me how he often helped Arabs, especially Arab women, cross into Israel for work while he was stationed at the border crossing with Gaza:


The other [Jewish] soldiers didn’t speak Arabic and the women couldn’t speak Hebrew. So we would intervene to work things out. Often, we would let the women pass on our own personal responsibility. They would always thank us, and shower us with blessings. When they returned in the evening they would often bring us boxes of fruit from their work [many women worked as seasonal fruit pickers]—we were swimming in guavas the whole season.


This emphasis on making a “kinder, gentler military force” was stretched the farthest by Mahmud, a young man who served for three years in a unit trained to go undercover as Arabs, infiltrate Palestinian areas, and capture wanted individuals. As an Arab going “undercover” as an Arab, he seemed to find redemption in the smallest gestures: he described how, during night raids on homes, he would always carry some candy in his pocket to calm down the terrified children of a raided household.




Perhaps more important than the “kinder gentler” justification was the argument made by several of the men that military service is a means of attaining equality in the state, upgrading their citizenship from second to first class, and generally changing their relationship to the state and its [majority] people. Through military service, soldiers can gain access to jobs, state land, educational subsidies, and low-interest loans unavailable to their nonserving brethren. Aside from these material benefits, the soldiers interviewed described varying degrees of success in their strategy of integration, which seems to have yielded mixed results at best. Bassam told me, “What’s most important is that I have my ‘reserve duty card’ proving that I gave for this state and I continue to give. Whenever I encounte r any problem, I whip out this card and this changes everything. It opens all the doors. I am suddenly one of them.” Yet at another point Bassam said, “You feel one thing when you are in uniform. Then there is no such thing as Arab and Jew. But once you take the uniform off, it’s all forgotten. You’re a dirty Arab again.”


The contradictions of this strategy are shaped by the contradictions of state policy, most notably the policy to Judaize the land. [15] This policy targets all Arabs—whatever their loyalties, military service, or political affiliation—and therefore largely overrides state attempts to “co-opt,” “Israelize,” or “integrate” the Arab population. In the southern ” Negev region, Judaization necessitates the removal of  Arab Bedouins from their land, regardless of whether  they have served in the army or not; one example, from January 2002, is the demolition orders of some fifty homes of Bedouins who had completed military service. The dispossessed Bedouins were to be settled in concentrated state-planned towns thus freeing up their lands for the “common” (read Jewish) good. A Hebrew newspaper covering a demonstration protesting demolition orders for “razing homes built illegally by former IDF soldiers” interviewed one of the organizers, Salem al-Atrash, aged 25, who had been discharged from the IDF five months earlier and was now living in a tiny shanty he built. Al-Atrash said that several months ago, he received an order to destroy his home: “This was my discharge present. After discovering seven booby traps and sacrificing my spirit for the state, the state is destroying my home . . . when it became clear to me that at least fifty discharged soldiers faced the same situation as I . . . we decided to act.” [16]


Even when people are willing to go to great lengths to accommodate the state, becoming Zionists, soldiers, Likudniks, or whatever else, the power and privileges they acquire does not change the Jewish nature of the state or their non-Jewish positioning within it. If many are willing to accept sincerely the designation “Israeli Arab,” thus using the 1967 Green Line as a border within their own identities, this line is often pulled out from under them. In January 2002, a hitchhiking Druze soldier in uniform was picked up by an Israeli Jewish driver, who immediately detected the soldier’s strong Arabic accent when he spoke Hebrew. Fearing that he might be “an Arab terrorist disguised as an Israeli soldier,” the driver took him to the nearest police station. “Good thing they didn’t shoot him,” one of my interviewees told me. “I have served in the army for seventeen years, but people can still tell I am an Arab, even in uniform. Sometimes, I’m on duty patrolling in the central bus station and I can see the foreigners [khawajat is the term used here to refer to Jewish Israelis] looking at me suspiciously. They are probably thinking, ‘What if he is from the West Bank but is in disguise?’ ” This basic mistrust of Arab identity within the military is also institutionalized through low ceilings for Arab promotions, extensive background security checks for Arab applicants, and automatic rejection of applicants with relatives in the occupied territories, Jordan, Lebanon, or Egypt. Due to the structure of the state, the military uniform continues to be seen—and thus to function—largely as a “disguise,” Arabness and Jewishness being treated as opposite essences.




Human rights lawyer Hassan Jabareen notes that in Israeli security institutions, “the Arabs are asked to prove their loyalty to the Jewish collective in Israel and not to the state as a neutral actor. It is thus a loyalty to another people.” [17] Many of my interviewees argue that this is not unique to security institutions, which are only a microcosm of the state as a whole: “How do you think you can get ahead as a schoolteacher, by teaching the poetry of Samih al-Qasim or Mahmud Darwish? No, you have to lower your head and march with the flow. It’s the same with the national health insurance system, the same everywhere.” Another soldier insisted that there are no “pure” or “clean” Arabs in Israel, since “we all pay taxes and they are eventually used to buy tanks and warplanes. Even the Arabs in the other countries, they sell their petrol—it’s that petrol that makes the Israeli tank in Gaza go.” While this argument can be used to depoliticize, and thus justify, any behavior, it suggests a certain thread in Palestinian life inside Israel: contradiction is embedded in their positioning.


It bears mentioning that identity is “shifty” not only among marginal groups such as soldiers and Zionist supporters. Even for the “core” group, identities are not stable. Nadim Rouhana, using a multiple-choice questionnaire for a sample of Palestinian university students in Israel in 1989, found the following percentage responses to the question “How would you define yourself?” : “Palestinian in Israel,” 43.5 percent; “Palestinian Arab,” 25.7 percent; “Israeli Palestinian,” 10.6 percent; “Palestinian Arab in Israel,” 5.5 percent; “Palestinian,” 4.5 percent; “Arab,” 4.1 percent; “Israeli,” 2.7 percent; “Other,” 2.1 percent; “Israeli Arab,” 1.4 percent. [18] Significantly, the term “Palestinian” appears in some form in 88.4 percent of the responses. Yet the data also suggest that there is rarely full consensus on self-definitions in any “sample group.” Surveys conducted by the Israeli Institute for Peace Research at Givat Haviva show strong fluctuations in the responses of their “representative sample” of Arabs in Israel: 63.2 percent of those interviewed found the term “Israeli” appropriate to their self-identity in 1995, compared to 32.8 percent in 1999. [19]


Thus, while the dynamic, compound, and shifting nature of identity is perhaps most clearly visible among groups such as the soldiers in my study, it is also discernible among those considered more “core” or dominant. The fact that the political scene includes a sizable “Israeli Arab” camp that preaches integration with Jewish Zionist parties, accepts Arabs’ junior status in them, and “emphasizes the Israeli component of the Arabs without demanding that the State modify its character” [20] illustrates the wide spectrum of strategies—often contradictory—that Palestinians have opted for. These strategies have also changed over time. Hisham Nafa’, a (Druze) activist who served two years in prison rather than join the army, explained:


I don’t consider national identity essential or natural, but when you have a policy aiming deliberately at dividing and ruling—as in the policy to produce a non-Arab Druze identity—then you are imposing something that’s only in the interest of the Jewish majority. . . . After Oslo and with access to the world of satellite channels, all of a sudden people—including hard-core Likudniks who said for many years ‘the Druze are not Arabs,’ ‘the Arabs are our enemies,’—are today saying ‘we are Arabs and we are Muslims.’ They have made a full about-turn.


Israeli television channel 2 broadcast a documentary on the soccer team of Tuba, a Bedouin village in the north. In the middle of the final match against Migdal (a Jewish town), when national and football tensions escalated, soccer fans from Tuba stopped waving the Israeli flag and deliberately folded it away in front of the camera. These Tuba fans, like the Arab Likudniks, activists, and soldiers mentioned above, demobilize and remobilize Palestinianness, Arabness, and Israeliness in various combinations. These mobilizations are informed at some level by the “basket” at hand—not being harassed at a mall, “getting somewhere” in this region, or wanting a piece of the Oslo pie—the parameters of which are often set by the state. It is the effectiveness of the various performances that gives us a better grasp of these parameters and how individuals and groups are able—or unable—to change them.


The question then becomes: what have the various strategies achieved? What have the strategies of integration into a Zionist state afforded the “Israeli Arab” political parties? What have Palestinians who serve in the army gained? While departing from a narrow nationalist paradigm, this approach is neither a political nor judgment free. My findings do not attempt to mask my personal opposition to service in the army, but rather present a more serious engagement with this issue than accusations of “collaboration” allow. Rather than be satisfied with an a priori stance that the soldiering phenomenon should be “normalized”—or, alternatively, left “abnormal”—I suggest an actual examination of the processes of integration and exclusion at work.


In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as inside the Green Line, “collaboration” and “loyalty” cannot be treated as uncomplicated categories. [21] During the first intifada, Palestinians in the occupied territories often took severe measures against those suspected of questionable loyalties or of “collaboration” with the enemy. The Associated Press reported that 777 Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians on suspicion of collaboration between 1987 and 1993. [22] Oddly enough, few Palestinian volunteers in the Israeli security apparatus were included in this category. At the outbreak of the intifada in 1987, the Unified National Command of the Uprising ordered all Palestinians in the territories serving in the Israeli police force to resign. The few who did not agree and who worked as active collaborators in security matters were targets of violence—at least seven of them were killed during the intifada. But those who resigned in response to the appeals and warnings were rarely harmed. The PLO even compensated all the policemen who resigned, providing them with a monthly salary. Moreover, “former policemen and officers in the Israeli Police have even been appointed to senior positions in the framework of Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and Jericho. They include Ibrahim Muhana, a former officer in the Israel Police, who was appointed to head the Palestinian police committee in the Gaza Strip. . . . They have begun to be included in the task of protecting the Palestinian delegates to the peace talks and in various other security tasks.” [23]


However, my focus on such complications and contradictions is not part of an argument for Palestinian exceptionalism. [24] Exploring the nonessentialness of Palestinian nationalist identifications should not delegitimize them as exceptionally fragmented or not “real,” as some Israeli social scientists have tried to do. [25] To explore their contradictory “embattled” identities is not to present Palestinians as being in a special state of identity crisis, chaos, or decline. [26] Rather, these contradictions are standard in the construction of identities and the workings of power in general.


As mentioned earlier, colonial contexts and marginal subjects make these contradictions easy to discern, but they are hardly their exclusive domain. Indeed, the loyalty of Palestinian soldiers in the Israeli army is not necessarily more fragile than that of their Jewish colleagues—rather, human loyalties and identities in general are more complicated than they might appear. Even identities such as “Israeli Jew” or “Euro-American”—though more naturalized by the work of dominance—are not free of contradiction.


This clearly follows from seriously questioning nationalism’s conception of itself, as is increasingly done, and undoing its image as “a unitary and internally unconflicted ideal that represents the authentic core of personhood in all circumstances superior to or even excluding all other identities, sentiments, interests, loyalties, and aspirations.” [27] The recently prominent Israeli Jewish “refuseniks” who have declined to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were attacked by other Israelis as part of a fifth column or as anti-Semites. Orna Sasson-Levy describes less visible and less sensational Israeli Jewish soldiers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, especially Mizrahi soldiers, who consider their earnest privileged colleagues as dupes of the state. [28] Others have described Russian Jewish men as continuing to value their evasion of the state, [29] and gay Israeli Jewish men as negotiating the disjunctures between their sexuality and national identifications. [30] National identity itself, and its relationship to the state, to borders, to ethnicity, to gender, class, and sexuality—are, more often than not, “embattled.”


Rather than paint such contradictions as exceptional, or, on the contrary, as ubiquitous and thus neutral or apolitical, they should be positioned in relation to the state and to the power of setting and changing structural parameters. In some ways, the latest Israeli military violence in areas briefly controlled by the Palestinian Authority forecloses many of the contradictions and divided identities I describe—they make the kinds of “instrumentalist” attempts at justification used by the soldiers seem more ridiculous. In July 2002, interviewees were detaching rather than describing a “kinder gentler” invasion of Jenin or demolitions in Nablus. As rumors circulated that the worst infractions—killing, beating, looting—were committed by Arabs in the Israeli military, their ambivalent positioning in their communities takes clearer forms. The slogans heard in demonstrations in October 2000—“Why should we be silent about those who serve in the army” (laysh nuskut laysh, ‘alli bikhidmu bil-jaysh)—are likely to become louder and more forceful.


Studying these soldiers is potentially fruitful on many other levels: for studying models of citizenship and assimilation, nationalisms, the intersections of notions of masculinity with nation, and gender with citizenship, forays into new fieldwork politics, and so on. In a sense, the analysis presented here raises more questions than it answers. Nonetheless, by delving into the complex relations of subalterns to institutions of power, one is struck both by the creativity of the marginalized in trying to escape that marginality and by the predictability and limited nature of their attempts. That is to say, one witnesses the ongoing dialogue, as Roger Lancaster puts it, between “necessity” and “freedom.” [31] Shafiq and Fadi make their own choices, but they do not do so randomly, they use the materials that are already given. [32] On the necessity side, limits are imposed by the state’s economic policies, its distribution of citizenship rights contingent on military service, and so on. The “freedom” side is embodied in the resilience of Palestinians in their attempt to bricolage their way out, under, over, and through these limits. The usual uniformity of the oppressed becomes an unlikely fiction.




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Rhoda Kanaaneh is an assistant professor of anthropology at American University, Washington, D.C. She is the author of Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). She wishes to thank Ayse Caglar, Elaine Combs-Schilling, Geraldine Chatelard, Frances Hasso, Roger Lancaster, Annelies Moors, Salim Tamari, Elia Zureik, and three anonymous reviewers for their feedback and comments at different stages of writing. Research was made possible by a Faculty Fellowship at New York University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and by a Jean Monnet Fellowship at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute (EUI). Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Middle East Studies Association annual meetings and at the EUI Mediterranean

Seminars in 2001.



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