NAZARETH, Israel – Israel's decision to honor a controversial Greek Orthodox priest at its official Independence Day ceremony is driving a wedge in the country's tiny Christian Arab community as the government recognizes him for his efforts to encourage Christians to enlist in the Israeli military.
Father Gabriel Naddaf's recruitment drive has deeply divided Israel's Christian Arabs, who make up just 2 percent of Israel's population. His inclusion in a ceremony tinged with sadness for many of the country's Arabs, along with new allegations accusing him of sexually harassing young people he helped, has only added to the anger and risks overshadowing what is meant to be a national celebration.
Naddaf has denied the charges, aired on a TV station this week, and the government said there are no plans to remove him from Wednesday night's festivities, where he will be one of 14 torch lighters chosen for their outstanding contributions to the country.
Since 2012, Naddaf has led recruitment drives in Christian communities, preaching about the need to enlist more Christians into Israel's military, which is compulsory for most Jews but voluntary for Arabs. He says it would better integrate them into a society where they often face discrimination.
"I will light the torch with great pride for the glory of the state of Israel and for the good of the Christians in Israel," Naddaf, 43, told The Associated Press on the sidelines of rehearsals for Wednesday's ceremony. He said the timing of the media report signaled "intentions to harm me personally and to also harm the lighting of the torch."
Israel's Arabs make up a fifth of the country's population of 8 million. Although they hold citizenship rights, many identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They also tend to view army service — a rite of passage for Israeli Jews — as taboo, in part because of Israel's military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state. Members of the Druze and Bedouin Arab minorities often do serve.
Naddaf's enlistment drive, coupled with his calls to Christians to shed the labels of Arab and Palestinian and adopt an Israeli character, has set off an emotional identity debate among Christian Arabs. Opponents say the campaign's real goal is to divide and weaken Israel's nearly 1.8 million Arabs, who include Muslims, Christians and Druze.
"When Gabriel Naddaf stands on stage during Independence Day in Jerusalem, he will light the torch in the name of Gabriel Naddaf and not in the name of the Christian Palestinians inside the Israeli state," said Azmi Hakim, an Orthodox Christian activist in the Arab city of Nazareth. "We are part and parcel of the Palestinian people and ... we don't celebrate Independence Day."
Naddaf, whose own sons have enlisted in the military, says his activism has triggered threats to his life. Arab legislators are among his most virulent opponents.
"He is a person who sold his soul for the good of the regime he serves," said Basel Ghattas, a Christian Arab lawmaker.
In a new blow to Naddaf, Channel 2 TV aired an investigative report on Sunday in which anonymous people, whose voices were disguised, made claims of sexual harassment against Naddaf. They also claimed he had sought bribes for helping Palestinians obtain Israeli permits.
Naddaf dismissed the claims as an "evil plot" by jealous enemies. "God will punish these people for harming me, my wife and my two sons who are serving now in the military," Naddaf wrote on Facebook.
But Shadi Halul, a former associate who had a falling out with Naddaf, said the allegations were too serious to dismiss. "As long as there is concern, even 1 percent, that it's really true, then I ask that (his invitation) to light the torch be suspended," he told Army Radio.
Israel's Culture Minister Miri Regev said unless Naddaf was proven guilty, he would light the torch. Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said some of the allegations would be investigated. She declined to elaborate.
At the ceremony on Wednesday, Naddaf will light a torch, deliver a brief statement and intone the traditional phrase, "for the glory of the State of Israel."
While Independence Day is a celebration for Jewish Israelis, it is melancholic for Palestinians, among them Arabs with Israeli citizenship, who view it as part of their people's "catastrophe," as they mark the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948.
Naddaf is not the first Arab to light a torch. Others have also faced criticism for participating in an event that opponents say only includes Arabs to project a misleading image of equality.
Israel recently approved a landmark, billion-dollar budget to improve the living conditions of Arab citizens. Even so, many Arabs are still scarred by comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, on election day last year, galvanized his supporters by warning that "Arabs were headed in droves" to the polls. Netanyahu later apologized.
Netanyahu threw his weight behind Naddaf in 2013, creating a committee to support his efforts while promising to protect him from "those inciting to violence" against him. Netanyahu has called Christian Arab recruits "loyal citizens who want to contribute to and protect the state."
"He is a groundbreaking leader," said Ofir Akunis, an Israeli Cabinet minister who worked with Naddaf on Netanyahu's committee.
Despite the commotion, Naddaf's campaign has enjoyed only modest success, with about 150 Christians enlisting every year, compared to some 35 before the drive began, according to a spokesman for Naddaf. The military said "there hasn't been a marked increase" in Christian recruits in recent years.
Wadie Abunassar, a Christian activist, said Christians, and minorities in Israel in general, deserve equality, regardless of whether they serve in the military.
"The Christian community doesn't need people like Naddaf to tell us how to integrate. We need a strategic change in the attitude of the Israeli government," he said.
Goldenberg reported from Jerusalem.