Palestinian citizens cannot be expected to serve Jewish state

By Fady Khoury

In an earlier post, I argued that the expectation for Palestinian citizens of Israel to serve in the army or in any alternative service lacks moral justification. I will elaborate on this argument here.

It goes as follows:

If (1) national service is an alternative to military service;
And (2) there is no moral basis upon which Palestinians can be expected to serve in the army;
Then (3) there is no moral basis upon which Palestinians can be expected to serve in national service.

Going forward, I will attempt to prove the first two statements of my argument, which if I succeed, will prove the conclusion in the third.


The key word here is alternative. In Israel, national service was introduced as an alternative to military service, for religious females and those who are exempt for a variety of reasons including health problems and conscientious objection. The thought behind establishing these additional forms of service was to repair an imbalance of duties between citizens in order to achieve equality between citizen groups. This took into account the obstacles that might arise from an attempt to enforce military service on all citizens.

The requirement for national service was first applied to religious Jewish women who were exempt from the military; in 1947, David Ben-Gurion said, “A girl or woman, who due to religious reasons or a religious family way of life, cannot enlist, is exempt from service.” In 1953, the Knesset passed a law requiring these women to serve in an alternative form – national service – for two years. In the 1990s, the government considered several initiatives to expand the national service program, against the backdrop of public demands calling for all those who were exempt – not only religious women but also Palestinian citizens – to serve the state. Nowadays, public opinion widely holds that Palestinian citizens should be obligated to do national service in exchange for their military exemption.


What is the function that the military aims to fulfill? “Security” is a popular answer, and partially true. But any army serves a more abstract function, which is to defend and uphold the basic constitutional framework of the state. In Israel, this framework is represented by the Jewish-democratic paradigm. Some states include this function in their constitutions. Israel has yet to complete its constitution and the Basic Law: the Military does not elaborate on the functions that the IDF is supposed to fulfill. The ethics code of the IDF – called “IDF Spirit” – states the following:

“…IDF soldiers will operate according to the IDF values and orders, while adhering to the laws of the state and norms of human dignity, and honoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

One of the values promoted by the IDF is “…commitment and devotion to the State of Israel – a democratic state that serves as a national home for the Jewish People – Its citizens and residents” (emphasis added).

Clearly, the IDF is dedicated to protecting Israel from threats that come its way – most prominently the threat to its Jewish nature. Therefore, in order to determine who is morally obligated to serve in this institution, we should point out that it is the Jewish citizens who are most invested in the Jewish definition of the state, gain the most from it, and are more likely to be willing to sacrifice to maintain it.

The Palestinian citizens on the other hand oppose this definition because it excludes them. The Jewish identity of Israel is the source of their marginalization and status as secondary citizens in their homeland. They cannot be morally expected to uphold and protect the basic features of the entity that they oppose by serving in the institution whose job description is to do so. The existence of the occupation is a factor, but is not the main consideration. It is not merely a question of whether it would be morally justified to expect Palestinians to serve in the IDF and contribute to the oppression of their people in the occupied territories. It is much broader than that. The question is whether it would be morally justified to expect Palestinians “to fight, to dedicate all their strength and even sacrifice their lives in order to protect the State of Israel” which “serves as a national home for the Jewish People.” In my view, it most certainly would not be morally justified.


The absence of a moral duty to serve in the IDF leads to the conclusion that any alternative duty is equally lacking a moral basis. Those who argue for the implementation of national service for Palestinians in order to balance the Jewish citizens’ military service overlook the set of rights that is afforded to the Jews by the mere identification of the state as Jewish. As I have stated before, only a bi-national state can give rise to a moral obligation on the part of the Palestinian citizens to serve in the army or in any alternative service.

Fady Khoury is a legal intern at Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not Adalah.