Abu Gosh: Hummus and coexistence
Commando Abu Gosh, is Israel's bona fide home front rescue team, its members are all Muslim Arabs, residents of the village of Abu Gosh in the Jerusalem Mountains. Its volunteers are proud to wear IDF uniforms and to salute their commanders.
The military company comprises a medical team with Magen David Adom volunteers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers and construction workers. The age group of members ranges between 20-30, although a father and son Zecharia and Halil Jaber serve side by side as well.
The company has a liaison officer and an emergency call up system. Last week it was called up for three days of reserve duty, and all the company members without exception turned up for their annual training.
Regiment Commander Nir Neuman is proud of the Arab company of volunteers. They carry out their assignments accurately, he says. Their professionalism, their ability to locate casualties and their proficiency with the equipment exceeds that of other companies, he says.
Coexistence in uniform
The idea to set up the company came about at a meeting held between the Jerusalem police force and the council head. While the eternal dispute over whether national service for Israeli Arabs should be legislated continues, at Abu Gosh they didn't wait for such laws to be passed.
Volunteering into the Abu Gosh commando was a decision taken collectively by villagers and it is backed by the head of the council, who is also personally involved in the company. Currently some 60 volunteers are active members of the home front team and some 60 more are waiting to be enlisted. The IDF found all the legal solutions for the voluntary organization, including payment for reserve duty and the issuance of salary slips.
When asked what made Arab Israelis don an IDF uniform, company commander Hunni Jaber said that all his life he had felt he was an Israeli citizen and as such he felt a need to volunteer into the army. "Now I walk around with my head held high," he says. He added that the home front is involved in saving human lives regardless of religion and race.
"Our voluntary work is a prime example of Jewish and Arab coexistence and cooperation," he added.
Another member of the team is Ismail Jaber who works as a baker at one of the large hotels in Jerusalem, but he too wouldn't give up the opportunity to carry out his reserve duty despite the amount of work ahead of the Jewish holidays. He says he joined the company to prove that coexistence was possible, "my voluntary work at the home front is aimed at strengthening peace, our work here is to save lives after all," he says.
The two soldier girls, Reut Rozman and Maya Norno who gave a class on rescue theories, say they have never met such highly motivated students before. They say the biggest difference between the Abu Gosh company and other companies is that all the Abu Gosh members all know each other, "it's like a family," they say.
The home front is looking for a way to turn the Abu Gosh company into a model for a national service option for Arab Israelis with the hope of setting up a similar unit in Sachnin in northern Israel.
Voluntary work taints village's image
However, not all the residents of the village favor the Arab voluntary work at the home front, saying that the commando unit taints the village's reputation throughout the territories.
"We do not oppose the State we oppose the occupation," says Mohamed Ibrahim Abu Hamza, a resident of the village. "That's why we oppose this project." He says that as long as the fighting in the territories continues, Palestinians are being killed and houses demolished it is shameful to wear an IDF uniform.
"It's still not time for national service or any other voluntary work," he says.
But the soldiers are not disconcerted; they have been assured that they would be permitted to take part in rescue operations overseas, which they say would be a great source of pride, not just in saving human lives but also in representing the State.
I should add here that such admirable behavior of the Abu Gosh Arabs is not a new phenomena; the people of Abu Gosh fought together with the Jews against the British colonial presence during the pre-state period and against the Arab invaders during the War of Independence.