East Jerusalem man, whose community doesn’t know he is in the army, to be honored on Independence Day.
For most soldiers, there is a period on their first weekend home from basic training when they strut around the neighborhood showing off their spotless dress greens, bursting with pride at the newfound maturity conferred by their uniform. That’s something that one soldier, who can only be identified as S., will never get to experience.
As an Arab living in east Jerusalem, S. does not even bring his uniform home with him. His neighbors do not know that he serves in the army, and S. needs to keep it that way.
On Thursday, Israel’s Independence Day, S. will be honored along with 120 other soldiers with a citation of excellence from President Shimon Peres, to honor S.’s dedication in overcoming insurmountable challenges to enlist.
“I wanted to serve, I wanted to defend the country,” said S., who cannot be identified in order to protect his safety. “I wanted to serve in order to do something good, and something good with my life.”
S. said he drifted after finishing high school, taking some university classes and working in different hotels in Jerusalem. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity in his community, S. turned to the army with hopes of becoming a career officer.
Many Beduin and Druse have served for years in the army, something that is supported and even encouraged in their communities. Israeli Arabs can also serve in the army if they choose, though there are very few that opt to do so. Even among the small minority of Israeli-Arab soldiers, S. sticks out. He said that as far as he knows, he is the only east Jerusalem Arab serving in the army.
Because the tense city is a flashpoint for violent confrontations between the security forces and Arab residents, there is even more animosity toward the army in east Jerusalem than among Israeli Arabs from the North. S. has received anonymous death threats via SMS, and he says he is not sure who could be sending them.
One of six children, S.’s immediate family and one uncle are the only people who know that he is an Israeli soldier.
Last week, two of his brothers followed in his footsteps and were also drafted into the army, something S. said brought him “great pride.”
The taciturn S. is uncomfortable talking about himself and a little bewildered by all the attention surrounding his citation of excellence. “They told me about it a month ago, it’s an honor to get to meet the president,” he said modestly.
For most soldiers, the most difficult part of being in the military is the frustrations and difficulties they face while on base. Heading home is a chance to relax and blow off steam. For S., the opposite is true. Each trip home is wrought with anxiety that someone might discover that he is a soldier. S. said his cover story is that he is studying during the week in Tel Aviv, and he even carries around a few textbooks to back up his claims.
S. serves in a Beduin unit and has been certified as an army medic. His brothers will also serve in Beduin units.
At first, it was hard being the only east Jerusalem Arab in a unit of only Beduin, S. said.
But as training progressed, his unit became more cohesive and he felt more connected to his fellow soldiers.
“The unit gives us everything, a lot of support, because there are a lot of people that come from difficult conditions,” he said.
S. does not anticipate a change in attitudes in his community toward the military anytime soon, and is doubtful that his choice to join the army will become more common in his impoverished neighborhood.
Still, S. does not regret his decision to enlist.
S. hopes to continue his studies, possibly through the army’s higher education programs, and one day become a doctor.
Before that, however, he is excited to serve as a role model for his brothers and help them through the difficulties of being a soldier in secret.
“The hardest part about this is where I live.”