An Arab Maverick in Israel
Bucking convention in his village, Yousef Juhja sent three sons to the IDF—and one paid the ultimate price
Yousef Juhja’s cell phone number ends, coincidentally, with the digits 1948. It’s the year of his birth and that of the Jewish state—and for most of Juhja’s fellow Israeli Arabs, the year of the Nakba, the catastrophe of national dispossession and the dispersion of their Palestinian kin.
But Juhja is an outlier in Arara, his hilltop village in the politically volatile Wadi Ara valley, and among the broader Israeli Arab community. That’s because he sent three sons to the Israel Defense Forces—a rare and deeply unpopular choice made by just a few dozen Arab youth every year.
“I sent three of my boys to military service with full conviction,” Juhja tells me over muddy coffee and cigarettes in his home. “For an Arab, sending one’s sons into the army is a brave decision. I’m a trailblazer.”
In 2004 one of those sons, 19-year-old Staff Sgt. Sa’id Juhja, paid the ultimate price for the Jewish state when he was killed in a bomb attack in Gaza. Shortly after, the bereaved father built a memorial to his son and seven other Arab soldiers killed in uniform over the years. The site—built on Juhja’s own initiative, property, and dime—is the only one of its kind in Israel.
The memorial is housed in a modest red-roofed edifice adjacent to Juhja’s home. Two large Israeli flags fly at its entrance, and inside an even bigger one stretches along the back wall facing a vista of stony, undulating terrain. On the side wall are marble memorial plaques—in Hebrew and Arabic—for eight soldiers, Muslim and Christian, killed between 1989 and the present. Juhja says he plans to add additional plaques if, “God forbid,” he hastens to add, the list of fallen Arab soldiers grows.
After years of bureaucratic wrangling, the plaques were finally paid for in 2010 by the Defense Ministry. The ministry also agreed to recognize the site as an official monument and to reimburse Juhja for 50 percent of the cost of its construction. Still, Juhja fears he may not be long for this world—life expectancy for Israeli Arab men is 75, but the 64-year-old is a chain smoker—and he doesn’t expect his five surviving sons or the Arara local authorities to keep the memorial running. He wants the ministry to take full control of daily operation and is contemplating extreme measures to make that happen.
“I and the other bereaved Arab fathers whose sons are commemorated here are considering waging a hunger strike outside the Defense Ministry,” Juhja says. “The ministry has gone AWOL.”
Arara is a village of 16,500, perched five kilometers from the Green Line separating Israel proper from the West Bank. Juhja says he welcomes around 50 visitors to the site weekly, but at present the path leading to it is too narrow for a bus. To allow bus access, he says, an electrical pole would have to be relocated at a cost of 26,000 shekels, or $6,700.
“For three years the ministry was making promises and calling committee after committee,” Juhja says. “Finally, this summer they told me there have been budget cuts, and they don’t know where they’d be able to get the money. In the meantime, I’m paying for everything: electricity, water, cleaning, even the chair you’re sitting in.”
The ministry, for its part, believes it’s done more than enough for Juhja, who built the memorial of his own volition and without having consulted the relevant authorities. “The Defense Ministry is tasked solely with maintaining national and brigade-level memorial sites. There are 24 such sites, such as [Jerusalem’s] Ammunition Hill and the Golani Brigade memorial,” a ministry spokesperson wrote me. “Still, the ministry deemed it appropriate to assist Mr. Juhja—ex gratia and on an unprecedented scale—in establishing a site to commemorate his son and additional fallen soldiers from the Arab community.”
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