Israel’s Knesset approved a bill last week which will impose a jail term on anyone attempting to dissuade Palestinian-Christians in the country from joining the IDF.

The bill passed into law with thirty-nine votes to nine, Haaretz reported, and will see prison time for anyone who incites or aids the desertion of Palestinian-Christians from the military. Current Israeli law already mandates up to fifteen years in jail for Jewish-Israelis convicted of the same crime, but this is the first such legislation relating to Christians and their role in the IDF.

Military conscription is obligatory for Jewish-Israelis and minorities such as the Druze and Circassians, but Palestinians in Israel, both Muslim and Christian, are exempt. This latest bill, however, suppresses both official and public debate on the role of Palestinian-Christians in Israel’s military and is a clear infringement on the freedom of expression. It is also, in short, part of a wider set of Israeli policies designed to divide the Palestinian community in Israel along religious lines.

One example of such policies came in 2014, when a controversial bill recognizing Palestinian Christians as a separate minority identity was passed in the Knesset. The law created a new ‘Christian’ national identity distinct from the existing ‘Arab’ category and, in effect, legally separated Palestinian Christians from the wider Muslim majority community.

“We and the Christians have a lot in common,” Israeli Likud MK Yariv Levin, the bill’s sponsor, said at the time. “They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.”

The identity bill created fears that Israel would begin conscription for Palestinian Christians in a bid to promote their loyalty to the state. Although that has not yet happened, in recent years there has been a recruitment drive to enlist Christians into the army, including sending voluntary enlistment notices to men and women of age to serve.

Despite this, the number of Palestinian Christians in the IDF is negligible. In 2013, there were 137 serving from a population of 160,000. The recruitment campaign played on a widely held assumption in Israel that Christians have less ardent Palestinian nationalist sentiments, and certainly a small minority who self-identify as Aramean rather than Arab support serving in Israel’s army.

The overwhelming majority of Palestinian Christians, however, consider themselves an integral part of the Palestinian people and they have always played an oversized role in the struggle for liberation. PFLP founder George Habash and intellectual powerhouse Edward Said, for example, were both from Christian families.

Nevertheless, the latest Israeli bill shows that religion and identity can always be manipulated to foment division. By institutionalizing and politicizing religious differences, Israel is trying to undermine the collective identity of Palestiniansa well established tactic of divide and rule.

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