By ETGAR LEFKOVITS
She is a Muslim Arab woman.
She’s an iconoclast and a pioneer.
An army officer who has received both the President’s Award of Excellence and that of the minister of defense, she is the first Muslim Arab woman to publicly become a major in the Israel Defense Force (IDF).
Meet Ella Waweya, 33, internationally known as “Captain Ella” (even after her promotion), the IDF’s deputy spokesperson for the Arabic media.
Captain Ella’s unconventional life journey begins in the central Israeli city of Qalansawe, located east of Netanya, where virtually all the residents are Muslim Arabs. Although she was born into a conservative, religious family, from a young age Waweya felt that she wanted to be part of Israeli society.
She recalls her family watching the one-sided reports of the Qatari-based Al Jazeera on the Second Intifada when she was 12 years old. Confused about her identity and confounded by the unchartered questions of a preteen—was she Arab Israeli or was she Palestinian?—she knew one thing: She wanted to be a journalist but she wanted to show the side that Al Jazeera was not presenting—that of the State of Israel.
She had many questions but did not find anyone who could answer them in what is a very cloistered society.
“Until I turned 16, I was in sort of dilemma as to what was my identity,” Waweya recounts in an interview with JNS in her Tel Aviv office at the IDF Spokesperson Unit’s foreign press branch. “It was as if I was in a type of bubble and I was coming out of a cave to a different, very strange world.”
A clarity of sorts came at age 16 when Waweya received her own Israeli ID card and with it felt that she got an answer to her question: You are Israeli. Still, in a pre-internet era, she pondered what she should do to feel Israeli. She decided to realize her first dream of studying communications and enrolled in an Israeli college. Pursuing her search of belonging, Waweya understood that she could perform a year of national service concomitant to her studies, and volunteered in the emergency room of an Israeli hospital at nights.
During a break, she chatted with a hospital security guard from the Bedouin minority. Like all Arab Israelis, who make up 21% of the population, the Bedouin are not subject to conscription, although some do serve in the IDF. The guard, who had been in the army, asked her why she chose to perform national service and not military service, leading Waweya to realize that although she was an Arab Muslim she could in fact enlist in the IDF.
Around the same time, as a communications major who had a radio show, Waweya was invited to attend a media conference in the southern city of Eilat, an event that would prove a watershed in her life’s journey.
One of the panels, which included the IDF chief spokesperson and a veteran Israeli military reporter, dealt with haredi conscription. After a member of the audience opined that the ultra-Orthodox should not serve in the military, Waweya made her move. She raised her hand and when called upon said that the speaker should be ashamed of himself, and that as a Muslim she herself wished she could join the IDF.
“All of a sudden—I did not understand why—everybody got up on their feet and applauded me,” she recounts. “I was very young and innocent.”
At the end of the session, then-IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Yoav “Poli” Mordechai and the late veteran military correspondent Roni Daniel from Israel’s Channel 12 approached her, an event still vivid in her memory a decade later.
‘I Salute You’
“Chapeau [‘bravo’],” Daniel told her. “I salute you,” Mordechai said, asking the head of his office who accompanied him—and who by chance was also named Ella—to take down her details.
Two days later, Waweya was summoned for an interview at the IDF Spokesperson’s office in Tel Aviv, and shortly thereafter she was accepted to work in the military’s coveted press office. At age 24, the young woman who did not know that the IDF had non-combat positions—or that Muslims could even enlist in the Israeli army—found herself in uniform.
At first, Waweya concealed her service from her family, who assumed she was working while studying since she had moved out at age 19, although they became concerned when they saw her recruitment papers sent in the mail. She recalls her enlistment day and the other young recruits accompanied by their family members. “I saw everybody saying goodbye to their parents, and that was the first day I was in uniform.”
A year and a half later, having enrolled in officer’s training and being selected as an outstanding soldier who would be honored by the president, Waweya called her brother because she wanted at least him to attend the ceremony.
“He didn’t understand what I was talking about,” she recalls. “He was in shock, after first laughing it off.”
She sent him a picture of her in uniform via WhatsApp. “I heard in his voice that he was shaking,” she recounts. “What is this?” he stammered. She revealed to him her big secret: that she had been in the IDF for a year and a half. “I’ll be with you but don’t tell anyone,” he told her.
Cat Out Of The Bag
At the Jerusalem award ceremony, her identity was supposed to be withheld. Yet after the Yediot Aharonot daily mentioned a pioneering young Arab woman named Ella from Qalansawe as part of a story about the event the cat was out of the bag.
“How many Ellas are there in Qalansawe?” she asks.
Dumbfounded herself by the disclosure, her family was shocked and took the news very harshly, creating a rupture that took a long time to heal.
“In retrospect, it was good the story came out,” she told JNS, “because it would have been very difficult for me to reveal it.”
Waweya tried to explain to her family that she was realizing a childhood dream by serving her country and to feel a sense of belonging and realize her goal of working with in communications. Slowly, her family began to come around, and began to view the IDF through a different lens.
When she received her officer’s rank, her mother was at the ceremony in what Waweya calls one of the most moving moments of her life.
“We hugged each other for 15 minutes on the stage and just cried,” she recounts. “We had never bonded as much before, ever.”
Captain Ella Videos
Nearly a decade after first donning a uniform, Waweya has risen in ranks and in the unit, become a fixture in the Arabic-language press, and is most prominently known for her “Captain Ella Videos,” a series of informational films about Israel and the IDF for the Arab society.
Nowadays, her mother beams with pride when talking about her daughter the major in the IDF. “If I were to tell her today that I am leaving the army she would tell me: No you aren’t,” Waweya says.
Not that she has any intention of going anywhere anytime soon. Waweya, who is signed on for an additional year in the army, expects to stay on for many more years before her next chapter in life. “It’s like a Catholic marriage,” she says.
She has gained the respect of a global Arabic press corps that at first didn’t know what to make of her. Several dozen people from her city—which was bitterly divided by news of her service—were inspired to either enlist or perform national service. “One man told me if you as a woman were not afraid to go and enlist, how should I as a man be?”
There are about 2 million Arab citizens in Israel.
Nearly 400 Muslim Arabs including Bedouin enlisted in the IDF over the last year, according to official army figures.
The maverick officer says that there is indeed a sense of something new in the air, pointing to the landmark 2020 Abraham Accords which saw four Arab countries normalize relations with Israel.
Immersed in the melting pot that is the IDF, and the direct commander of four soldiers who, she says, look up to her as a “mom, sister, friend and officer,” Waweya says that today she feels Israeli in every way.
“This is my place, to change the image in the Arab society and to show the togetherness of the State of Israel,” she says.