Captain Ella Waweya

“The Israeli flag gives me a feeling of excitement, belonging and love,” enthuses Muslim IDF Captain Ella Waweya.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

To millions of social media surfers around the world, the face and voice of the Israel Defense Forces is a Muslim woman.

Captain Ella Waweya hails from the Israeli Arab town of Qalansawe in the center of the country, only a few miles east of the city of Netanya.

Although she could have used the standard exemption, Waweya, or Captain Ella, as she is known on Twitter and Facebook, chose to volunteer for the IDF and is an officer in the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, Israel’s Channel 12 news reported on the weekend.

She overcame social stigmas and distrust, gained the respect of her family and friends, and is no longer afraid to say out loud: “The Israeli flag gives me a feeling of excitement, belonging and love.”

For the first 18 months, Waweya hid her army service from her family, but during home leave on a weekend her mother came into her room without knocking and found her daughter with an IDF uniform.

“She looked at the uniform, turned her gaze to me – and began to cry, but quietly so that no one would hear,” Waweya told Channel 12.

When it became known in the town of some 25,000, Waweya said, she got some negative reactions but took it in stride.

“Some people objected. They just told me they would rather cut me off. Some just stopped answering my calls. Some probably blocked me on WhatsApp. Okay, to this day I understand them and I respect them,” she said, adding that she returns home only in civilian clothes.

“I am not supposed to harass people. On the contrary. I am the face of the IDF now in my society. And for that I need to really show them that I respect them,” she said.

Hers is an extraordinary story of an Arab girl who went against the flow and norms of her society and family expectations.

She is a rare combination of one who defines herself as Arab, Muslim and Israeli, and proudly carries her officer’s rank. And she is exceptionally talented, winning the President’s Medal of Excellence a few years ago.

Today, Waweya is the Deputy Head of the IDF’s Arab Communications Department, leading a team of soldiers fluent in Arabic who are presenting a different picture of Israel to the Arabic-speaking world.

Her target audience is hundreds of millions of Arabic speakers in the Middle East. The promotional videos featuring “Captain Ella” are a brand that is becoming stronger in the Arab world with millions of views, tens of thousands of likes and comments, and thousands of shares.

Who is watching her? Hezbollah terrorists for one!

Waweya said people from all over the Arab world in moderate and “less fortunate” countries are following her. When she was on Israel’s northern border, she was recognized from the Lebanese side.

“Suddenly, some Hezbollah activists call out to me ‘Captain Ella.’ It appears that they do know us, and they probably also follow us on Facebook.”

She also gets feedback from the Arab world, with “one Iraqi who tells me all day, ‘I want to marry you.'”

Waweya is unusual in the IDF landscape, but she is not the only one, as Qalansawe cafe owner Abu-Eliazen Zabarka, himself an IDF veteran, helps other young Israeli Arabs enlist.

Zabarka says that unlike Waweya, many are afraid to reveal their service publicly, but he sees the Israeli Arab’s future as one of joining with the state and its symbols.

“We are proud and supportive of you,” Zabarka told her, noting that times have changed because 10 years ago, talking openly about Arabs serving in the IDF “was impossible.”

It took Waweya’s father a year and a half to forgive Waweya for her decision to enlist in the IDF, but tragedy struck shortly afterwards when her father became one of the more than 6,000 Israelis who succumbed to the coronavirus.

“I never expected my dad to tell people, and proudly tell them his daughter was in the military,” she said, her voice starting to choke. “There is a notebook that the president’s honorees receive with all the pictures of the honorees and an explanation of them. He always kept it in the car.”

As tears welled up in her eyes, she praised the strength of her parents, saying: “I cry because my dream was, and I really waited for it, that he would be with me at the ceremony of receiving the rank of Major. One of the things I want to do when I receive the rank is to go to his grave and say to him, ‘Here, your daughter has made it, and you should be proud of her.'”

Ella’s mother came to the ceremony when she got her captain’s bars.

“I am proud of her, of course. My daughter, praise be to God, did nothing wrong. She chose an area she loves. May the evil eye not affect her, she built herself with her own hands,” she said.

Waweya says the young Arab generation in Israel is connected and the army gives them many options and opens doors.

“What are people looking for? Equality between an Arab and a Jew, a Bedouin, a Druze and a Circassian. The path to equality passes through the IDF, the Ministry of Defense, the police. That’s how it starts,” said Waweya.

“I live in the State of Israel. So I live here according to the Israeli flag. I will not lie and raise the flag of Palestine. I am Israeli in every way.”

“When there are ceremonies and I salute this flag … it may not be obvious but it makes me feel excited, with love, with belonging. I sometimes have a tear in my eye when I see it.”

Asked how she defines herself, Waweya replied: “I am Ella. A woman, an Arab, a Muslim and an Israeli. This is my definition. At the age of 16, I received a blue ID card like every citizen in the State of Israel. It means I am Israeli. I was born here, I live here, I studied here. I do everything here. I am Israeli. For all intents and purposes, and in order to feel it even more, I chose to serve in the IDF.

“I am one hundred percent Israeli. And very proud of it.”