By: Hanine Hassan
Her name is Katie. She is from the Netherlands, and chose to serve in the Israeli navy instead of remaining in her country.
Will her government label her and the rest of the hundreds of Dutch youth serving in the Israeli military as jihadstrijders (jihad fighters), the name given to the hundred or so that went to Syria? Katie, a Dutch-Israeli dual citizen, is after all a jihadist in occupied Palestinian lands.
Israel’s genocidal campaign in the Gaza Strip is entering its second week. The death toll has risen to more than 600, with thousands more injured and displaced – alongside arbitrary arrests, the demolition of family homes and a policy of apartheid towards Palestinians both in the West Bank and within the state of Israel. What’s more, these war crimes are directly supported by the recruits from Europe and the United States that land at Ben Gurion airport throughout the year.
The notion of Europeans and Americans serving in the Israeli army isn’t new.
Before the creation of the state of Israel, thousands of western volunteers were recruited by the Zionist movement – in a process named Mahal or volunteers from abroad to take part in Zionist military operations in Palestine during the British Mandate.
In the 1948 war, as many as 4,000 World War II veterans from the US, Canada and Europe carried out military operations against Palestinians, serving the Zionist project with their expertise in warfare, artillery, naval and aerial combat.
A bigger role than fighting
Within the historical context of western support for the Zionist project, it wasn’t the number of Mahal combatants that was significant. The role of foreign recruits was to be found in the political and demographic transformation of Palestine.
The late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, later attributed the successful outcome of the war to the support of foreign fighters: “They came to us when we most needed them, during those hard and uncertain days of our 1948 war of independence.”
In supporting and developing Israel’s military power, these western recruits deliberately contributed to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian towns, the dispossession and depopulation of Palestinian communities, and the massacres inflicted on them.
But Mahal recruitment did not end with the creation of the Israeli state. It continues to this day.
Thousands of volunteers, from more than 40 countries, stream to Israel to serve in all branches of the Israeli military – many in combat units. The online Mahal recruitment programme ostensibly aims to “defend” Israel and strengthen the connection of these volunteers to the Israeli military. Non-Israeli nationals of Jewish descent can join the ranks of the armed forces for an 18-month tour and be in the same front-line combat units as Israeli conscripts, including those operating in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Around 100 British nationals are currently serving in the Israeli army. It’s a significant number. British mothers even have support groups to exchange experiences of having a child serving in the Israeli military.
In 2009, Baron Ahmed of Rotherham asked Britain’s House of Lords, the UK parliament’s upper chamber, whether any British citizens were serving in the Israeli military or its reserves.
Lord Malloch-Brown, minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, responded, “Other than press reports, the UK government does not possess information about whom the Israeli government have called up to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or the Israeli Defense Reserves, including any dual nationals. Only the Israeli government would have this information… Anybody who has broken the fourth protocol of the Geneva Convention deserves to meet justice in some court or another.” So much for the oversight of the British intelligence and security services.
In April 2014, a British parliamentary report outlined – in 246 pages – counterterrorism approaches towards British Muslims fighting in Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. Nowhere did it mention the threat of indoctrinated British citizens returning home from serving in the Israeli military. Nor did it mention that serving in an occupying army remains a crime in violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870, which criminalizes British citizens who serve in the armed forces of another country.