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Will there be accountability for Brits fighting in Israel?

August 6, 2014 at 3:29 pm

The Israeli army is currently waging a cold blooded campaign against the Gaza Strip, the third of its kind in less than six years. As thousands of Palestinians are killed and injured by Israeli forces, attention is slowly but surely turning towards those who are committing some of the most cruel and gruesome acts of war.

After Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) there were attempts to use universal jurisdiction to bring about the arrest of senior Israeli officials visiting the UK who were accused of war crimes. Although the laws on universal jurisdiction were changed by the current British government, inevitably the spotlight remains on the illegality of the IDFs actions during the course of war.

During this war, however, the spotlight has shone upon a slightly different element, those British nationals who are serving in the IDF. In recent months there has been much scrutiny of British nationals who have left the UK for Syria. A letter to the Home Secretary and MP for Hayes and Harlington, John McDonnell, highlighted that 20 British nationals have had their citizenship withdrawn as a result of their activities in Syria. Media reports have suggested that hundreds of British nationals were going to Syria to take part in activities against Assad as the civil war in Syria continues to rage on some three years later. As these reports filtered out, the British government voiced concerns that upon their return these British nationals would be radicalised and become involved in extremism. This is not the first time that government officials have linked foreign affairs to extremism in the UK, but almost exclusively the conversations about extremism in the UK have consistently focused on the Muslim community.

Yet what these conversations have missed is another potential force for radicalisation. This has been missed because this radicalisation will not be of Muslims by Muslims nor at the hand of Muslims; in short it is because that spell happens in Israel.

The IDF do not actively recruit foreign nationals in the UK, yet despite this figures from Channel 4 News suggest that at least 100 Brits are currently active in the Israeli army. The Israeli army do not provide figures for the number of foreign recruits they currently have and whilst British MPs have quizzed the government on this, ministers have been unable to report back on the exact numbers. Indeed, when Lord Ahmed of Rotherham asked the then minister about this in 2009, the minister reported that this information would only be available from the Israeli government.

However, back in 2010 the Independent newspaper reported that a new organisation, Aish Malach, had been established to help foreign nationals enlist in the army. Most can join through a programme known as Mahal, which allows a person who is Jewish or of Jewish ancestry to join the army; they need not be a citizen of Israel in order to do so.

With or without structured recruitment programmes young British Jewish recruits are keen to sign up to the IDF. When the Guardiancovered this in 2006, they spoke to a British recruit who said that he was joining, along with other recruits, to show his love and support for Israel. And it seems according to one report in the New Statesman that this indoctrination into support for the IDF starts early, with 16 and 17 year-olds joining the Marva programme, which echoes the training of the IDF soldiers in order to encourage the young participants to empathise with the army. These young British recruits are encouraged to join by youth groups such as the RSY Netzer and the Federation of Zionist Youth. Many of these participants did go on to join the IDF.

Whilst many of these recruits do go on to take Israeli citizenship with many becoming dual nationals, this is not the case for all recruits. Some recruits choose not to take on citizenship and remain British nationals only. Whether or not they have citizenship, these foreign recruits take on a full role in the army and serve in the same way as any other recruit in the IDF. And this inevitably means that they will take part in those same actions which the British public have watched unfold in Gaza over recent weeks resulting in the death of nearly 2000 Palestinians.

The current conflict in Gaza has undoubtedly seen a breach of international law and it would be no stretch of the imagination to assume that war crimes had not been committed. As Palestinian officials met with International Criminal Court prosecutors, a group of senior British lawyers wrote to the ICC urging them to investigate noting that the ICC had a duty to do so given the UN’s recognition of Palestine. And if Israel is found guilty of war crimes at the ICC, then it follows that Israeli officials would have to be held to account over their actions. And under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Britain would have a duty to ensure that it plays its role in ensuring that justice is served.

With British nationals active in the IDF, there is no doubt that some of these recruits will have taken part in the current campaign in Gaza. As Foreign Office Minister, Lord Malloch Brown, noted after Operation Cast Lead: “anybody who has broken the fourth protocol of the Geneva Convention deserves to meet justice in some court or another.” The minister also said that it would not be right to draw a distinction between “British nationals and others”. Should British nationals return to the UK having partaken in such crimes it should be inevitable that justice would follow. In reality, it is unlikely that any such action would be taken by British courts against British IDF soldiers.

Whilst there have been no moves to prevent Brits enlisting in the IDF, there is a law which states it is an offence for a British national to enlist in a foreign army and should they do so it would be an offence “punishable by fine and imprisonment.” The law however has been barely used and became almost redundant when British nationals left the UK to join the struggles during the Spanish civil war. With no laws to effectively prevent Brits joining the IDF, British nationals remain vulnerable to arrest – if they choose to leave the country and take up arms with the Israeli army, who have been killing and wounding civilians in Gaza they are culpable of committing crimes against a besieged civilian population, almost certainly illegal under international law.

Britain has always been troubled by its role in the Middle East and the effect of its foreign policy on communities at home in the UK. When the current government launched its report into British nationals fighting in Syria, the focus was on how to prevent radicalisation of the Muslim communities in the UK. Those Brits arrested after returning from Syria have been accused of partaking in terrorist activity, but those Brits in the IDF are no less guilty of that. The only difference being that the the Israeli army’s actions are state sanctioned and as of yet have not been condemned by the British government.

When British Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi resigned she noted that the UK need to end its complicity by looking to bring about an arms embargo. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg went on to call for a suspension of arms export licenses within hours of Warsi’s resignation, but if the UK is to fully end its complicity in Israeli war crimes, it needs to look closely at the actions of its citizens who are taking part in the IDFs assault of the Palestinian people.