Soldiers crawl across the desert sand with assault rifles cocked. It's a routine exercise, but these are no ordinary troops – they are Arabs who have chosen to fight for the Jewish state. While the vast majority of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are Jews – and nearly all their conflicts have been against Arab nations – a few Israeli Arabs volunteer for the army.
Most are Bedouin, a community native to southern Israel, but others are the descendants of Palestinians who remained during the 1948 war of the state's founding, when hundreds of thousands of their brethren fled or were forced from their homes by advancing Israeli troops.
"Why did I decide to enlist?" asks Sergeant Yusef Salutta, a 20-year-old Arab from the north of Israel who serves with the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion. "Because I'm from this country and I love the country and I want to contribute," he told Reuters correspondent Rinat Harash. "Everyone should enlist, anybody who lives here should enlist." A silver Star of David necklace hung around Salutta's neck, and he chatted with fellow soldiers in Hebrew.
The military conscripts young Jewish men and women, but not Israeli Arabs. It does not report exact numbers of Arab volunteers, but officials say there are several hundred among the 175,000 active personnel.
The battalion makes use of Bedouins' tracking skills to search for terror threats and to thwart infiltration attempts into Israel.
The head of the IDF Minorities Unit, Colonel Wajdi Sarhan, said some Israeli-Arabs see service as a way to improve their chances in life. "[It] can get easier when you hold of an Israeli soldier or reservist ID card," said Sarhan. "To be a soldier in the army, it's actually an identity certificate of Israeli-ness, which can help integration."
He said some recruits faced threats and harassment at home from fellow Israeli-Arabs. In some cases, they are allowed to travel to and from military duty out of uniform. But when it comes to Israel's decades-old conflict against the Palestinians, there is no question – if they are required to fight, they must. "I assume that anyone who decided to be a combat soldier in such a unit took this into consideration in advance," said Sarhan.