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Thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv this past weekend in a rally that highlights an increasing religious secular divide. The demonstrators were backing a proposal to make military service mandatory, even for religious Jews who are currently exempt. But the legislation may cover not just ultra Orthodox Jews. It could also apply to Israel's Palestinian citizens. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The city of Umm al-Fahm is home to about 60,000 of Israel's estimated 1.5 million Arab-Israeli citizens. Even though it's technically part of a booming Israel, it seems to exist in a parallel universe. Umm el-Fahm is overcrowded, the streets are filled with potholes, and, says resident Iyad Ighbariyeh, it doesn't even have a single hospital.
IYAD IGHBARIYEH: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: My wife gave birth three days ago, he says, and I had to take her to the nearby Jewish town. We are the second largest city of Palestinians in Israel, and we don't even have basic infrastructure, he says.
Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have long complained that they've been discriminated against and ignored. Unlike ultra-religious Jews who have been given generous subsidies and aren't required to work, Israeli-Arabs say they've largely been left to their own devices.
IGHBARIYEH: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so Ighbariyeh says he's against national service for his community. He says they took over our land, and they've treated us like second-class citizens ever since. Why should we do national service for a Jewish state, he asks. Community leaders agree. While there seem to be no plans right now to oblige Israeli-Arabs to join the IDF, Jewish-Israeli leaders want young Israeli-Arabs to do some kind of community service in their own towns and cities.
HANEEN ZOABI: We don't have libraries. We don't have hospitals. Where to serve? Where to serve?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But that's not the main problem, says Palestinian Haneen Zoabi, a member of the Israeli Knesset.
ZOABI: It's more a loyalty discourse.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zoabi says this is another way of forcing the Palestinian population of Israel to relinquish their heritage.
ZOABI: Rights to the citizens must be absolute rights. They cannot be conditioned whether you serve in the army or not, whether you serve in the civic service or not. This is a tool in order to justify the discrimination towards me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another complaint is that there's been no consultation with Arab-Israeli leaders in drafting the new law. Ayman Odeh heads the Coalition Against Civic Service.
AYMAN ODEH: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says we work. We pay taxes, and those taxes go to build settlements and support the occupation. The country doesn't need compensation from us. We need compensation from it.
David Rotem is with Yisreal Beiteinu, the party headed by ultranationalist Avigdor Leiberman. It's in the ruling coalition government, and it's leading the charge to make Arab-Israeli participation in national service mandatory.
DAVID ROTEM: Citizenship is a partnership. Now, if you don't want to be a partner and you don't want to pay your debts to the society, don't come and ask for rights.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He agrees Arab-Israelis are discriminated against but says that's fair.
ROTEM: They are discriminated because they don't want to give anything to the state. They just want to receive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Back in Umm el-Fahm, Arab-Israelis say they don't get much from the state at all.
MOHAMMED MAZEN: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, 18-year-old Mohammed Mazen says he would like to do national service. He sees the difference between Jews and Arabs in Israel and says maybe if he serves, he can finally be treated as an equal. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.