But still, Wahib came to this interview with immense trepidation. Even today, after 12 years in the Israeli military, he still doesn’t feel comfortable openly discussing his views. For years he struggled on all fronts: he fought against the residents of his village, who to this day refer to him as a traitor, and he fought the military institution that never fully understood his motives.
“In my village, they can’t understand what could possibly motivate me to protect a country that is not my own. In the army there are people who know me and would go all the way with me, but there are those who don’t know me and don’t really know how to relate to me,” he says.
So why did he decide to give this interview, with his face exposed and his full name in print? “Because it is important to me to show the Arab public what they are missing. There are quite a lot of people [in the Arab community] who want to enlist, but they are afraid and they don’t know if they will be accepted by their environment. It is important to me to show them the road I’ve traveled, and to make them understand that it is possible.” Regardless, he doesn’t take his hand off his gun for a second during the entire interview. “It is my security. It is my only means of protecting myself,” he says.
His Hebrew is fluent, without a hint of an accent, and he could easily be mistaken for an average Tel Avivian. A map of the training grounds hangs on his office wall, and his green eyes constantly sweep it, making sure again and again that everything is under control. Every once in a while a soldier will knock on the door, asking permission for this or that mission, and one of them, noticing the newspaper crew, can’t resist and says “write that he is the best commander there is.” Wahib tries to hide an embarrassed smile and tells the soldier to get his backside back to the field.
He describes himself as a “Zionist Israeli Arab.” Four years ago he went on a tour of Nazi extermination camps in Poland, together with his fellow officers, as part of the IDF’s Witnesses in Uniform program. “As a child,” he says, “I grew up in a society that denies the Holocaust. When I arrived in Poland I was shocked. I cried a lot. It was difficult to contain this thing called genocide. There was something very powerful in the fact that I was standing on Polish soil, holding an Israeli flag and donning the uniform of the Israeli army, but this time from a position of power. It was proof that we can’t be broken.”
When Wahib says “we” he means the Jewish people. “I believe in the Muslim faith, and I will never abandon it, but I think that Zionism is more than a religion. It is something that fully represents my sense of belonging to the State of Israel and to Israeli society, and the immense commitment I have to protecting and guarding the country of which I am part.”
Hold on a second. Doesn’t protecting Israel’s security mean fighting your own people?
“Look, I served in Lebanon, in Gaza and Judea and Samaria and I took part in plenty of clashes where my life was in danger. I never, not for a second, ever thought of leaving. I never asked myself ‘what am I doing here?’ As far as I am concerned, there is no other way.”
I never threw rocks
He was born in the village of Reineh in the Galillee, which currently houses some 17,000 residents, more than 80 percent of whom are Muslim. His father was born in Syria, and had two wives. Each wife had four children. Wahib is the second son of the second wife. Today he lives alone in the village, in a huge house that he built himself. The dichotomy that characterizes his life can easily be seen in his house: modern Israeli furniture side by side with traditional Arab pieces. Two statues of dogs welcome guests, perhaps as a warning to ill wishers to keep their distance.
His family lives on the other side of the village, and has no contact with him. “It is not because I went to the army,” he rushes to explain. “It would make sense for my family not to accept my enlistment, but that is the one thing they could actually live with. My father even supported me. The problem was that after he died, I met a Christian girl. My mother forbade the relationship, and the entire family exerted heavy pressure on us to break up. There were a lot of confrontations. I didn’t want it to become violent, so we had no choice but to split up. The way things look now, I don’t see how we could ever be together. That is why I severed ties with my family. The only family member I am still in touch with is, of all people, my father’s other wife and her children. They are now my only family.”
The price he pays for serving in the IDF is dear. It is a price he pays daily. He has no contact with any of the people in his village, and the only friends that ever visit are his colleagues from the army. “In Arab society it is customary to be involved in each other’s lives, there is no privacy,” he says sadly. “I often prefer the company of the cows that graze down here. They don’t judge me, they let me live my life in peace. I built this house to show everyone all that I’ve achieved – in our society the size of your house is a social status symbol. But today there is nothing tying me to this place. When people ask me where my home is, I immediately answer that my home is my room on the base.”
Read the rest of Michal Yaakov Yitzhaki's article at IsraelHayom