Israel has announced that it will send call-up papers for military service in the nation's army to all Arab Christians in the country.
The move, which escalates an ongoing debate, marks the first time that Israel has solicited volunteers for its military among its Arab Christian population. Until now, the military has conscripted mainly Israeli Jews and some members of the country's minority Druze population. Palestinians living in Israel are referred to as Israeli Arabs.
But a prominent Arab Christian engaged in reconciliation work believes many in his community see the development as "intimidation" by their government.
"The way people see it here is intimidation. You receive a letter from the army and they would like you to volunteer for the army—it's intimidation," said Salim Munayer, executive director of Jerusalem-based reconciliation ministry Musalaha.
Some people, especially in the Galilee area, see it as an attempt by the Israeli government "to divide Muslims and Christians," Munayer told CT.
"They believe the Israeli government wants to separate the Christian community from its Palestinian identity. That's how leaders in the north of the country see it," he said.
Although Israel says military service will remain voluntary for its estimated 130,000 Christian Arabs, as it is for more than 1.3 million Muslim Arabs, only Christians will receive the official call-up papers.
But Israel Army radio reported that commanders hope that the sending of call-up papers will help increase volunteers from around 100 Christian enlistees per year at present to 1,000.
An Arab lawmaker, Bassel Ghattas, of the communist Hadash party has urged Christians receiving the call-up papers to return them or "publicly burn them because the next step could be compulsory military or community service."
But Munayer dismissed the comment saying that in order to have compulsory army service it would have to be applied on the entire the Arab population, including Muslims.
The prominent evangelical leader did however say that Israel's Arab Christian community was vulnerable and such moves make it feel insecure.
Meanwhile, a few Christian Arabs, notably Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from the northern city of Nazareth, welcomed the move, saying it opens up opportunities for youth.
Earlier this year, Israel's parliament passed a controversial bill granting legal distinction between the country's Muslim and Christian Arabs for the first time, recognizing Christians as a separate minority. Many Arab Christians said they do not want such distinctions.
The legislation also envisions boosting employment representation for Christian Arabs in Israel's government by adding an Israeli Christian Arab to the panel of the Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity.
At the time, the chairman of the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel, Munther Na'um predicted that Arab Christians will largely disregard the unprecedented special minority representation granted them by Israel's legislature.
CT previously reported on whether Israeli Christians and Jews can be brothers in arms.
Hamas, PLO Reconcile?
In other major developments in the Middle East, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, widely branded as a terrorist organization, today announced that the two had resolved their differences after a seven-year split.
Hamas has had control of the Gaza Strip, while the PA has governed areas of the West Bank. The two groups said they expect to form a single government to be followed by elections before the end of 2014.
US and Israeli leaders were critical of the announcement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted, "Whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace." A U.S. State Department spokesperson said this move could "seriously complicate" efforts to keep peace negotiations on track.
The U.S. has said the clock will run out on the current negotiations on April 29, but some leaders have been seeking a way to keep the talks going past that date.