The IDF Sword Batallion
by Norman Berdichevsky (July 2015)
Bedouin IDF soldiers in 1949
Two non-Jewish minority communities in Israel, the Druze (a deviant Shi’a Muslim group) and Circassians (Sunni Muslims whose ancestors were exiled to Palestine from the Caucasus), are subject to mandatory conscription to the IDF. Additionally, members of several Bedouin tribes volunteer as well as individual Muslim and Christian Arabs. The decision of the first two groups to accept obligatory service in the Israeli military forces was made at their own request. As early as the summer of 1948, after years of intense pressure by the Palestinian Higher Arab committee to join in the fight to prevent a Jewish state, units of the three groups defected and switched sides to fight with the Jews.
The designated unit for them was attached to the Oded Brigade and fought in Operation Hiram in October 1948. Since then, it has fought with distinction in every war. Today, the unit is also the natural choice for a growing number of Christian and Muslim Arab volunteers.
Originally, a special minority unit, known since 1987 as The IDF Sword Battalion (Hebrew: ???? ????, Gdud Herev, Arabic: ????? ??????), was formerly called Unit 300 or The IDF Minorities Unit. Since the 1980s however, Druze, Circassian and individual Arab and Bedouin soldiers at their own request have joined regular combat units, attaining high ranks and commendations for distinguished service.
Those who are familiar with other historical conflicts should know better than to accept simplistic versions of the past that are corroborated only by hindsight. Most historians today agree that roughly one third of the American population favored independence, another third was steadfastly loyal to the crown and in between were those hoping to maintain neutrality and avoid any decision until the outcome was determined. In Palestine during the period of the Mandate, Arab support and aid to the Jews was always carefully hidden but not insubstantial.
Before examining the distinguished record of non-Jewish volunteers in Israel’s military annals who have added another chapter to that of the Christian volunteers in MAHAL (see Berdichevsky, NER June 2015), three remarkable books are worth mentioning that provide a valuable source of information to explain the background of the old adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Drawing on original sources in both Arabic documents of the “Arab Executive Committee” (the leading political body of the Palestinian-Arab Nationalist movement), Supreme Muslim Council and the Arab press as well as numerous memoirs, and Hebrew (Central Zionist Archives, Hagana Archives, Hebrew press and personal memoirs), the three books trace the heretofore largely unreported history of Palestinian/Arab collaboration with the Zionist movement during the period of the British Mandate.
They are: 1. Palestine Betrayed by Efriam Karsh, Yale University Press, New Haven. 342 pages. 30 photos, appendices, notes, 5 maps. 2010. (Berdichevsky, NER, September, 2012.)
2. Army of Shadows; Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 by Hillel Cohen (Berdichevsky, NER February, 2009.)
3. Good Arabs; The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-67 by Hillel Cohen (translated by Haim Watzman, University of California Press. 2010. This work also includes considerable information on the first twenty years of Israeli statehood from 1948 to 1967.
The Arab collaboration took the form of facilitating the sale of land to Jewish settlers, the provision of vital security intelligence, political propaganda, arms smuggling, military assistance and eventual conscription in the IDF.
It is no exaggeration, in the light of these many revelations, to assert that without the invaluable cooperation with dissident Arab elements opposed to the mainstream Arab Executive Committee, the Zionist movement might not have been able to achieve the goal of a Jewish state. Such a claim undoubtedly both surprises and shocks those who take an interest in the Middle East and claim to be familiar with the conflict, a struggle that has generated an ocean of ink but has traditionally paid no attention to nuances. What is even more amazing is that Palestinian Arab cooperation with Jewish settlers during the Mandate came predominantly from conservative and traditional rural Muslim circles, attracted by economic opportunities, employment, new markets, agricultural techniques, medical care, city life, Jewish girlfriends or simple bribery.
Both the official Palestinian nationalist and Zionist sides have tended to keep this information confidential and have been reluctant to see it exposed. The Arab side led by the Grand Mufti, Haj-Amin al Husseini, presented their case to world opinion as an entirely unified opposition by their community to Zionism, Jewish immigration, and the British Mandate authorities. Likewise, the Jewish Zionist narrative has preferred to exclude most references to that part of the Arab community willing to cooperate in the spirit of compromise. The Hebrew slogan “Eyn Breyrah” (there is no alternative), was used effectively to rally support for the Zionist goal of a Jewish state as a life or death issue, portraying the Arab side as a united front of total rejection to any compromise.
These books are a “MUST READ” not only for the general public but most of all for the thousands of reporters, commentators and "pundits" teeming over Israel, the disputed territories and the entire Middle East with absolutely no knowledge of the original languages, documents, first-hand accounts and archives that tell the full story of the conflict.
It effectively wipes out the oceans of ink spilt in convincing much of present world opinion and hypnotizing the present generation of Palestinian Arabs that the nakba (disaster) that befell them was inevitable or the fault of Jewish design, intransigence, or duplicity. The “Betrayal” in the title of Karsh’s book was self-betrayal by the Palestinian Arab leadership who led the people they claimed as their charge into a dead end. The leadership is condemned by its own archives and eye-witnesses in tens of thousands of documents released by the British Foreign Office that serves as the source material for much of the three books.
It was the Palestinian Higher Arab Committee which willfully misguided, misinformed, and inflamed a large section of public opinion among the Arab community that there could not be any compromise and all who spoke or acted on its behalf were “traitors.” These traitors who all worked for Jewish-Arab cooperation include such luminaries as the Arab mayor of Haifa. This year is the 75th anniversary of the death of Hasan Bey Shukri, the first mayor of modern Haifa. Shukri was born in 1876 in Jerusalem to a family in the highest levels of Ottoman officialdom. His family moved to Haifa when he was young, and the Turks appointed him mayor in 1914.
Throughout his tenure as mayor, Shukri displayed a positive and conciliatory attitude toward the Jewish community in the city, and gave them senior posts in the municipality as well as recognizing Hebrew as an official language of the city administration alongside of Arabic in 1927. In 1933, he opened up city tenders to Jewish contractors as well as Arab ones.
Hassan Shukri was targeted by Arab assassins numerous times. Labor leader Sami Taha and many lesser Arab officials and politicians as well as village chieftains (all assassinated by agents of the Mufti) worked closely with the Histadrut and refused to cooperate with the many strikes called by the reactionary and extremist leadership within HAC headed by the Grand Mufti, still revered by the current Palestinian Authority leadership as the “Father of the Palestinian Nation.”
Many friends of Israel are unaware of this past history or that the Druze, Circassian and Bedouin veterans of the IDF have suffered casualties and fatalities in excess of the Jewish population as a percentage of their relative populations. For more than a decade, the leader among Israeli settlements with the highest per capita casualty rate was the Druze village, Beit Jann in the Galilee. (The village holds another enviable record. Its high school students have the highest rate of successfully completing the “bogrut” – matriculation for automatic acceptance into an Israeli university.)
According to IDF statistics more than 80 percent of Druze and Circassians serve in the army, almost 400 have been killed in combat operations since 1948. In May 2015, the IDF published plans to disband the Sword Battalion, after research revealed the vast majority of recruits would rather integrate into the rest of the army.
The “Arab” Communities
In 2012, the official number of Arab residents and non-Jews in Israel was almost 1,600,000 people - almost 20 percent of Israel’s population of eight million. This figure includes approximately 300,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem, under Israeli control since 1967. About 82.6 percent of the Arab population in Israel is Sunni Muslim (with a very small minority of Shia), another 9 percent is Druze, and around 9 percent is Christian (mostly Oriental Orthodox and Catholic denominations).
Clearly, the three “minority within a minority” communities of Druze, Circassians and Bedouins had ample reasons to seek alliances with the Jews to afford themselves a counterweight against pressure from the Sunni Arab majority. Strong rivalries among and within clans, regions, villages, religions (Muslim and Christian) and political interests persisted during the Mandate.
The growing expansion of Arab industry and agriculture, especially related to the prosperous cultivation of citrus, olives, cereals, and grapes, led to fear by the conservative and moderate religious leadership that extremist politics would jeopardize this prosperity. The Muslim effendi class resented the extremist Muslim forces of the Husseini clan and their jockeying for power by using the ideology of Pan-Arab nationalism.
The more moderate Nashashibi clan who were not so rabidly anti-Zionist and often demonstrated loyalty and moderation to the Mandatory authorities but were constantly rebuffed by the British who were intent on mollifying the most extreme nationalist and Muslim religious voices. Scores of Arab villages signed non-aggression agreements with neighboring Jewish settlements, kibbutzim, and towns not to permit their homes to be used as bases for attacks. Many of the Arab villages where the population objected strongly to the presence of foreign Arab military forces who tried to press-gang them into joining in the hostilities, ejected them or even provided Jewish settlements with important information.
The Israeli government designated the Druze a distinct ethnic community in 1957 at the request of its communal leaders. They number about 140,000 and constitute 2% of Israel’s population. Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Druze were not recognized as a religious community. They were regarded as a deviant sect by the majority Sunni Muslim religious authorities. They live mainly in the north of the country. Many Druze have attained top positions in the military, Israeli politics and public service, although initially when conscription was first accepted by the community’s leadership in 1956 for regular army service, there was considerable opposition. Since then, the “Blood Brotherhood” between Jews and Druze as Comrades in Arms has grown substantially.
In 2007, Nabiah A-Din, a Druze mayor objected to proposals by Arab politicians in the radical Adalah Group that Israel be declared a multicultural state and argued that: "The state of Israel is Jewish state as well as a democratic state that espouses equality and elections. We invalidate and reject everything that the Adalah organization is requesting," he said. According to A-din, the fate of Druze and Circassians in Israel is intertwined with that of the state. "This is a blood pact, and a pact of the living. We are unwilling to support a substantial alteration to the nature of this state, to which we tied our destinies prior to its establishment."
In a survey conducted in 2008, Ephraim Ya’ar of Tel Aviv University found that more than 94% of Druze youth classified themselves as "Druze-Israelis" in the religious and national context. A growing number of Israeli Druze join elite units of the military, leaving the official Druze battalion understaffed. Several have even qualified as combat pilots in the Air force.
The obvious signs of brutality and the violation of human rights and continual inter-communal fighting in Gaza by Hamas, in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen where the “Arab Spring” triumphed and the growing instability in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan have not been lost on Israel’s Arab population who have begun to critically rethink their role in the country following a near collapse of Arab nationalism.
The specter of a triumphal Islamism and the stated goal of restoring the caliphate are hardly embraced by many large segments of the Israeli Arab population who understand that cooperation and coexistence in Israel is an essential and inevitable part of any desirable future peaceful scenario. Among the Druze in both Syria and Lebanon, there is a growing awareness that their brothers in Israel are natural allies with whom a future alliance is desirable and likely.
The Circassian community numbers approximately 5,000 and resides primarily in two Galilean villages, Kfar Kama and Rehaniya. Nowadays, the Circassian community in Israel is well integrated into Israeli society, speak their ancestral Turkic language Adyghe (in addition to learning Hebrew, Arabic and English in elementary school), while cultivating their unique heritage and culture.
The Israeli Circassians have had good relations with the Jewish community in Israel since the beginning of the pre-state Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel due, in part to knowledge of the Russian language shared with many of the First Aliyah immigrants from Russia who settled in the Galilee. They also helped the illegal migration of Jews from Lebanon and Syria into Mandate Palestine. Many in Israel are employed in the Israeli security forces, including in the Israeli Border Police, the Israeli Defence Forces, and the Israeli Prison Service. The percentage of the army recruits among the community in Israel is particularly high.
The Bedouin and the Special Tracker Unit
Each year, between 5%-10% of the Bedouin of draft age volunteer for the Israeli army. They are not required by law to do so. Many serve as trackers in the IDF's elite units, securing the border from infiltration. Israel’s Bedouins number about 45,000 classified into 22 distinct tribes. About 1,600 are currently active duty servicemen, two-thirds of whom come from the north. In recent years, voluntary recruitment has varied from 90 to several hundred several hundred men among the 1,500-plus Bedouin eligible to join up each year.
Far from Perfect but Preferable
Ismail Khaldi is the first Bedouin vice consul of Israel and the highest ranking Muslim in the Israeli foreign service. While acknowledging that the status of the Israeli Bedouin minority is not ideal, he said: “I am a proud Israeli – along with many other non-Jewish Israelis such as Druze, Bahai, Bedouin, Christians and Muslims, who live in one of the most culturally diversified societies and the only true democracy in the Middle East. Like America, Israeli society is far from perfect, but let us deal honestly. By any yardstick you choose—educational opportunity, economic development, women and gay's rights, freedom of speech and assembly, legislative representation—Israel's minorities fare far better than any other country in the Middle East.”
No memorial existed for fallen Bedouin servicemen killed in uniform while serving for the IDF until the construction of one at his own expense by Yousef Juhja in Arara, a hilltop village in the Wadi ‘Ara. The memorial plaque is housed in a modest red-roofed edifice adjacent to Juhja’s home. Two large Israeli flags fly at its entrance, the side wall is embellished with marble memorial plaques—in Hebrew and Arabic—for eight soldiers, Muslim and Christian, killed between 1989 and the present. Two more monuments for Druze soldiers have been constructed with some government support.
In the immediate aftermath of Sgt. Juhja’s death, scores of soldiers, ministry officials, and even Israel’s then-president Moshe Katsav paid calls of respectful mourning to the house. A number of Knesset members have since visited the memorial—but none have been Arab. That’s because Juhja sent three sons to the Israel Defense Forces.
After years of dispute, the plaques were finally paid for in 2010 by the Defense Ministry which agreed to recognize the site as an official monument and to reimburse Juhja for 50 percent of the cost of its construction. A belated memorial stamp honoring fallen Bedouin servicemen was issued in 1999.
Another milestone on the long road to greater integrations of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens was the completion at the end of October, 2013, of the IDF’s demanding Tank Commander’s Course by the Bedouin, Corporal Mustafa Tabash, age 19. In an interview on the IDF website, he exclaimed, “Being the first Bedouin in the armored units is awesome, because I am the first to take part in the course, everybody is looking at me and it is a chance for me to show off my abilities.” Tabash, always defined himself as an Israeli patriot. Initially, he served as an ammunitions loader. As a volunteer, he felt a strong motivation to provide a model and an example to other young Israeli Muslims and especially the Bedouin community.
In the recent war in Gaza, Israeli Muslim and Christian Arab soldiers were noticeably present and gave a good account of themselves. Their rate of volunteering for military service has increased and while still small, portends a growing change in attitude to accept equal obligations.
Norman Berdichevsky is the author of The Left is Seldom Right and Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.
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