Israel's foreign fighters in the spotlight amid harrowing Gaza assault

Israel's foreign fighters in the spotlight amid harrowing Gaza assault
5 min read
25 October, 2023
The Israeli military has a strong contingent of 'foreign-born fighters'. Here The New Arab explains who they are and how they came to fight for Israel.
Israeli soldiers, poised to invade Gaza, gaze towards the besieged and bombarded Palestinian enclave [Getty]

Since Israel launched its all-out assault on the besieged Gaza Strip on 7 October, killing over 6,000 people to date, there have been questions raised about the number of foreign-born Israeli soldiers - including from the US, UK, and Canada - being involved in the fighting.

British citizen Corporal Nathanel Young, 20, was among the 1,400 Israelis killed in Hamas's surprise 7 October attack on Israel from Gaza, the densely-packed Palestinian enclave that has been under an Israeli siege for 17 years.

A British man, 26-year-old Jake Marlowe, who was working as security during the Supernova music festival, which was targeted by Hamas, was also killed by gunmen.

On Sunday, Omer Balva, 22, born and raised in Maryland, died in a suspected Hezbollah missile strike on northern Israel.

With debate over European and American nationals fighting for foreign armies and armed groups over recent years, The New Arab looks at how this came to happen in Israel. 

Who can fight for Israel?

Under the Israeli government's 'Mahal' programme - an acronym of Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz - the Israeli military can enlist Jewish people from around the world.

It allows for any person, aged under 24 for men and 21 for women, with at least one Jewish grandparent, to sign up for the Israeli Armed Forces and serve for between 18 to 24 months without the need for Israeli citizenship. 

It's also true that given any Jewish person can become a citizen of Israel, there is a significant number of dual Israeli nationals who often serve in the Israeli military, either as active soldiers, reservists, or volunteers. 

Is it legal outside of Israel?

Almost all Western countries have no laws against citizens fighting for Israel.  Since 7 October and the calling up of 360,000 military reservists by Israel, over 100 people have travelled from the UK to join the Israeli military

Most of these are dual British-Israeli nationals who are also reservists in the Israeli military rather than volunteers. 

In the US, there has also been a similar trend, with many dual American-Israeli citizens heading for Israel since 7 October.

According to data resulting from Israel's 2014 attack on Gaza, between 800 and 1,000 foreign volunteers, that is non-Israeli citizens, join the Israeli military every year. There are a total of 4,600 foreign volunteers, with many more dual nationals from around the world in active or reserve service. 

It even united Russians and Ukrainians, with hundreds of nationals from both countries volunteering for the Israeli military despite the ongoing bloody war between Moscow and Kyiv. 


Why did so many Jewish Europeans and Americans volunteer for the Israeli military?

It’s impossible to explain the motivation for each and every foreign-born fighter enlisting in the Israeli military, but identity often plays a role. In a recent interview with CBC, 21-year-old Temima Silver, who was born and raised in Ottawa, said that the most immediate reason was the Hamas 7 October attack and the urge "to do something and stand up for [Israel] — physically".

But she also mentioned that she felt an "underlying antisemitism" in Canada since the onset of the conflict, one she equated with anti-Zionism - a link that has been disputed by many pro-Palestine activists.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it while addressing commandos poised to invade Gaza: "We are in the fight of our life, a fight for our home. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s not an overstatement, that’s this war. It is kill or be killed, and they need to be killed.”

Most critics know that this is propaganda from Netanyahu and Israel faces no such existential threat, but this rhetoric could be useful, as we see with Silver’s justification, in encouraging young Jewish people to join the Israeli military. 

How is it legal to fight for a foreign state?

During Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, a petition was presented to the UK government calling on British citizens who were deployed to the occupied territories to be prosecuted under the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870, which prohibits nationals from enlisting in a foreign force.

The British government responded by saying the act doesn't apply to Israel, as it only stops British citizens from engaging in a war with another foreign army and the UK does not recognise Palestine as an independent state.

Thus, any foreigner joining the Israeli military now is not deemed to be breaking any law as Israel has declared war on Hamas, an entity and not a state. 

This has led to accusations of double standards, given that British nationals have been prosecuted or questioned by UK authorities for fighting for anti-Assad and Kurdish groups in Syria. Others have also been jailed for joining the banned Islamic State group.

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What about accusations of the Israeli military carrying out war crimes?

Israel has killed around 6,000 Palestinians since 7 October, the overwhelming majority civilians and including over 2,400 children.

Schools, hospitals, and markets in Gaza have been routinely bombed by the Israeli air force while an Israeli ground offensive, which is still on the cards, would likely mean many more civilian deaths.

More generally, Israel has carried out an illegal military occupation of Palestinian land since 1967, with its military accused by Palestinians, international human rights groups, and the UN of carrying out war crimes.

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Despite widespread condemnation of atrocities carried out by Israel, many UK and US politicians, including UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden, consider the war that Israel is currently waging to be one of "self-defence" and have also supported Israel’s previous deadly assaults on Gaza.

This sits incongruously with the UK, US, and EU governments' acceptance that Israel is occupying Palestinian territory.

Given the Western powers' near-unlimited support for Israel, however, it is highly unlikely that they would ever seek to prosecute their citizens for engaging in fighting for the Israeli military now, despite the thousands of civilians killed and injured by Israel's indiscriminate campaign against Gaza.