HISHAM Abu Rayya has wanted to defend his country since he was a boy. He has achieved that ambition and, in doing so, has become an object of hatred in his home town.
Although the burly 26-year-old looks like any other soldier at the military base in Ramla, close to Tel Aviv, he is not. He is an Arab Israeli, and the first member of his community to make officer grade in the six decades of the Jewish state's existence.
While other members of the Arab Israeli minority, who make up a fifth of Israel's population, serve in the army, most are uneducated school-leavers merely looking for a job.
Lieutenant Abu Rayya, who has a degree in Hebrew, sees himself as a trailblazer for integrating his community at a time of heightened tensions.
'This is an important thing for me, this is my duty to my country,' he said at his office at the Home Front Command base in Ramla. 'It was a brave decision I had to take. I believe in co-existence and equality in Israel.'
Arab Israelis - descendants of Palestinian Arabs who did not leave their homes in the war of 1948-49 that led to the birth of Israel - have generally shunned the army, complaining that, while they are loyal citizens of Israel, they suffer from discrimination.
Lieutenant Abu Rayya was cautioned against delving into Israel's political minefield by an army spokesman who accompanied him throughout the interview, but made clear his disdain for Arab Israeli politicians who 'get a salary and a car from the Knesset (parliament) and then talk against the Knesset'.
In interviews with the Israeli press, he has criticised the Arab community for behaving like a herd. 'It doesn't think on its own, and is influenced by all sorts of extremist movements,' he said.
'For the most part, youngsters haven't got anything to do with themselves. They roam the streets, waste time, and that's if they finished school.
'Service in the army is instructive, it gives you a framework, order - exactly what youngsters here are so lacking in.'
The Arab officer admitted that there was discrimination against his community, but said that serving in the army was the way to break out of the cycle of distrust, and forge a new identity.
'The Arabs who don't join the army because of discrimination, it's not true,' he said, holding himself up as an example. 'The army encourages Arabs to join . . . It all depends on us as citizens. We can hold out our hands in peace and get rid of the discrimination, or let it go on and on.'
As for guarding the country, he noted that 'rockets don't discriminate' between Jews and Arabs, and said that he guarded all Israel's citizens against attack.
He does not question his orders. He has even served in the West Bank, protecting a Jewish settlement and joining in Passover celebrations. He, in turn, observes Muslim feast days. 'I feel I am example to anyone who wants to join the army,' he said.
Lieutenant Abu Rayya's job is to recruit more soldiers from the Arab community. 'The Arab sector never believed there'd be an Arab officer, they never believed they would accept us, and they do,' he said.
In the streets of his home town of Sakhnin, a large Arab community near Nazareth, mention of the lieutenant's name prompted only scorn. 'The redhead? He's a traitor,' Ali Ghnamey, a 24-year-old student, said. 'He's even declared he'd fight in Gaza or the West Bank. That shows the values they are putting into him.'
'He doesn't have values, or any friends,' said Ibrahim Shawahneh, who sells falafel in a fast-food shop. 'We wouldn't serve him if he came here.'" (source)