The thorny issue of foreign soldiers serving in the Israeli military is back in the headlines, triggered by the debate over the future of Shamima Begum, the British schoolgirl who ran away from home to join terror group Daesh in Syria. Thousands of young men and women from around the world, including Britain, Canada and America, volunteer to fight in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), which faces regular accusations of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights abuses. The IDF’s treatment of Palestinians is brutal, even for an occupation army.
A letter written by the Britain’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, back in 2014 to the then Home Secretary Theresa May has just resurfaced. “I am aware of the Government’s policy of detaining and prosecuting those British citizens travelling to fight in the current Middle East conflicts,” wrote the Labour MP. “Will you be warning any British citizens considering engagement with the IDF that, in line with established British Government practice (e.g. the deprivation of British citizenship from, to date, at least 40 UK passport holders who have been involved in the Syrian civil war), such engagement may put their British citizenship in jeopardy?”
McDonnell wrote to May given the seriousness of the then Israeli military offensive on the Palestinians in Gaza and the apparent escalation of Israeli attacks. “I urge you to address these questions promptly so that any British citizen currently participating or planning to participate in these attacks is warned of the potential consequences and thus may be deterred from acting in this way.” He demanded that action should be taken against British-Israeli dual nationals, pointing out that some may even be implicated in war crimes, at the height of the aerial bombardment on Gaza in which hundreds of innocent women, men and their children were killed.
Several years down the line, and now Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, once one of the most powerful Muslim women in the British government, has said that British citizens who volunteer for the Israeli army should be prosecuted like others who fight for foreign forces. The former Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said that people should only be legally allowed to fight for the country where they are registered as a citizen. Warsi quit her role in the Foreign Office back in 2014 after calling the war in Gaza “morally indefensible”. Since then she appears to have been airbrushed from Conservative Party politics.
The British government’s current policy on the issue is, suggested Baroness Warsi, flawed and contains loopholes. “If you go out there and fight for any group,” she explained, “you will be subject to prosecution when you get back. If you go out and fight for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, I presume, under our law, that is okay. That can’t be right.” She claimed that the only reason we allow the loophole to exist is because of the IDF. “We are not brave enough to say that if you hold British citizenship, you make a choice. You fight for our state only.” The Yorkshire-born baroness said that this message has to go out loud and clear. She has made her views known at a time when Muslims in Britain continue to face questions about their loyalty.
“We don’t talk about it in relation to other communities,” she added. “We accept that other communities hold multiple identities. Let’s just shut down this loophole. If you don’t fight for Britain, you do not fight.”
Mick Napier, a co-founder of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) pointed out that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations all consider the IDF to be guilty of the most egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity. “Clearly any British citizens serving in that army have questions to answer because they may have witnessed or been involved in war crimes. This must not be swept under the carpet.”
Indeed, he added, there is “well-documented evidence” of war crimes carried out by Israel on the Palestinian people and their children. “Those involved should be held to account under international law. Israel’s soldiers, regardless of nationality, like the misguided characters who joined Daesh, have to be held accountable for their actions.”
IDF recruits don’t necessarily have to be born in Israel or even hold dual citizenship. Anyone can join through the so-called “Mahal” programme if they meet specific background and age requirements. While British citizens fighting for some foreign forces have faced prosecution on their return to Britain, those who temporarily join up with the IDF have not. Nor have those fighting alongside Kurdish forces in Syria faced prosecution even though Britain’s NATO ally Turkey regards many of the Kurdish militia groups as terrorist organisations.
Israel’s Mahal initiative is for men under the age of 24 and women under 21. Applicants don’t have to hold Israeli citizenship or even be practising Jews. If they can prove that they have at least one Jewish grandparent they can sign up for 18 months in the IDF.
The whole question of loyalty and citizenship has been in the headlines a lot over the past few days. It can have serious implications. Last week, for example, an American appeal court ruled that a $1 billion lawsuit by Palestinians and Palestinian Americans against casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and other supporters of Israel for genocide and other war crimes can go forward. The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district court ruling dismissing the case because it felt that a court could not rule on political and foreign policy issues.
The lawsuit, reported MEMO, alleges a conspiracy by the pro-Israel defendants to expel non-Jews from the West Bank and Jerusalem, and accused them of committing or aiding in genocide and other war crimes. The other defendants named in the lawsuit include Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, Bank Leumi and Bank Hapoalim; construction and support companies such as Hewlett Packard and Volvo; and 13 non-profit organisations. Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson said that the court can decide whether the defendants named in the lawsuit conspired to remove non-Jews from the West Bank or committed war crimes “without touching the sovereignty question, if it concluded that Israeli settlers are committing genocide.”
Meanwhile, the British Government will this week ask MPs to outlaw membership or support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah in any form; those who ignore the new legislation will face up to 10 years’ in prison. The plan to extend the existing ban on Hezbollah’s military wing to the organisation as a whole, even though Hezbollah MPs serve in the government, in Beirut will be discussed on Friday.
The British government announced that the group will be “proscribed” from this Friday as a terrorist organisation over its “attempts to destabilise the fragile situation in the Middle East”; ministers claim that they can no longer distinguish between Hezbollah the political party and its already-banned military wing.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who is embroiled in the citizenship row over runaway Daesh bride Shamima Begum, announced the move. “My priority is to protect the British people,” he claimed. “As part of this, we identify and ban any terrorist organisation which threatens our safety and security, whatever their motivations or ideology, which is why I am taking action against several organisations today.”
Other groups earmarked for British designation as terrorist organisations include Ansaroul Islam and JNIM, which operate in the Sahel region in Africa; and the Turkish Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front (DHKC), the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party (DHKP) and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front/Armed Propaganda Units (DHKC/SPB), which are aliases of the Revolutionary Peoples’ Liberation Party—Front (Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Partisi-Cephesi) which is already proscribed. Organisations which are believed to be aliases of Daesh, including: Jaysh Khalid Bin Walid and Khalid Ibn Walid Army, are also scheduled to be banned by the British.
Will a strong stance be taken against British citizens who enlist in the Israel Defence Forces? It is unlikely, given the strong Zionist leanings of government ministers and MPs across the House of Commons. It is not that long ago, remember, that the British government changed the procedures governing universal jurisdiction to accommodate visits by Israeli politicians believed to be responsible for war crimes.
This is not about saying that those fighting for Daesh are the same as those in IDF uniforms. It is about having laws and applying the law to everyone. IDF members have, literally, got away with murder for many years. The British government must apply the same principles to everyone, so that Britons who fight for Israel will also be held to account when they return to the UK. Isn’t that what democracy and the rule of law is all about?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.