Josh Jackman writes in the Jewish Chronicle:
Israel’s highest-ranking Muslim soldier has described how he endeavours to make his service a source of pride to his father, despite many treating him as a traitor. Growing up in the village of Reineh in the Galilee – where many believe he has betrayed Arab-Israelis – Major Alaa Waheeb said he never imagined he would be part of the Israeli Defence Forces, let alone go on to become its most-decorated Muslim.
The major was speaking while in Britain for a tour of communities organised by the grassroots group Zionist Federation. But the soldier, who has served as a platoon commander and was an operations officer in the Gaza brigade during the disengagement in 2005, could not even speak Hebrew until he was 18. At his high school, he was told that “serving in the IDF is not the way of the Muslim religion”. He said it was only the intervention of his father which caused him to perform “a 180-degree change from where I was,” and join the army.
“If there’s one thing that I want to say, it’s that my dad was the one who wanted me to join the IDF. My dad always told me to be a soldier. “He was born in Syria and brought to Israel as a small child. He and his family lived in Yavne’el, a small town with many religious Jews. That’s why he had so many Jewish friends, why he then joined the Israeli police, and why he told me to join the army.
“I was wondering, ‘what does he want from me?’ and I told him: ‘I have nothing to look for in the IDF’.”
But eventually, at the age of 18, Major Waheeb was convinced. Nearly two decades later, he said his decision was still unpopular with some. “My friends, my dad’s society, my teachers, my family – no-one supported me, no-one besides my dad. Even my mother, who I love and care for, was extremely resistant. “She did not want me to go to the IDF. She is from a very traditional family and her relatives were extremely against what I was doing.”
Major Waheeb, 36, said: “There is no mother in the world who would be glad to hear that her child decided to join an army – and now think about the mum whose child also goes to an army when she doesn’t believe the country it exists for.” After he joined the IDF following an extensive two-year vetting process by the authorities, becoming part of the green-beret wearing Nahal infantry brigade during the Second Intifada, Major Waheeb moved away from Reineh for 15 years. He has now moved back, despite his neighbours still believing – and often saying to his face – that he has betrayed them.
Major Waheeb said: “Those who knew me beforehand, who knew me and who I am – they did not forget it. I think if you asked them they would be proud that I am a man now and I support myself.” He admitted that when he first joined the IDF, he was “very hesitant” about fighting Arabs, especially as people in his village would ask: “Are you going to kill and murder Arab people, because this is what the IDF is doing, isn’t it?”
The major said he “understood where this question comes from, because these Arabs in Gaza and Lebanon are relatives of people who live in my village,” but said that when it came down to it, “I had no special feelings. “Those are my enemies as well. If someone is firing rockets from Gaza, they may be an Arab, but their rocket can hit my house as well.
“Slowly but surely I began to fall in love with the people in my unit. My life never felt like it was less important than their lives. We became brothers in arms. I am happy with that, because every moment of co-operation between Israeli-Arabs and Israeli Jews reduces the risk of war, and makes the chances for peace higher.” Major Waheeb said that thinking about his father was emotional: “If he was alive now, I would really want to see how he felt about me. “When I go to visit his grave, I whisper to him: ‘If you are around here; if you can somehow see what’s going on, I hope you see where I am now and that you’re proud of me’.”