Does volunteering for Israeli army comply with international law ?

A dozen states in the world are opening the doors of their army to foreign nationals. A single country however is opening them according to sole ethno-religious criterion : Israel. Beyond the ideological raison d’être, this raises the question of compliance with international law by States that allow their citizens to join, even temporarily, an army of occupation.

Mahal Program Volunteers.

In France, the French Foreign Legion was created in 1831 by King Louis-Philippe to gather and mix the various foreign units then existing within the French army. Formerly intended for colonial conquests, it is nowadays a legacy of History that no longer responds to any political or military necessity. Open to everyone without distinction, it eases access to French nationality but only those wounded in action acquire it automatically if they ask for it.

In the U.S., the only requirement is the prior holding of the green card, which means being a permanent legal resident. Nearly 30,000 foreigners wear the American military uniform. 5,000 enlist each year. This approach indeed offers already resident aliens a much faster and systematic acquisition of the US citizenship. For its part, U.S. armed forces are pleased to enlist recruits who reveal themselves more disciplined and voluntarist than American citizens, whose eagerness to wear the uniform tends to weaken.

Nevermind the post-colonial criteria of the United Kingdom which always welcomes Commonwealth citizens, of Spain which accepts those of its former South American conquests, and of Russia in favor of Russian-speaking citizens from former Soviet republics.

An unique case, Israel, which offers all non-Israeli to serve in its combat units provided that they are Jews, or that one of their parents or grandparents is Jew.

An integral spirit with Israel

In Israel, various programs allow any non-Israeli Jew to come and wear the uniform of the Israeli army, without making them Israeli citizens. This goes back to the end of the Second World War when several thousand volunteers called mahalniks, coming from dozens of countries and followers of the Zionist cause, came to support with arms the creation of the Israeli state at the end of the British mandate and helped, at the 1948 independence, the young Israeli army exposed to the neighboring Arab countries. The principle remains the same today. The host program for Jewish foreigners in combat units has kept the name of Mahal. It incorporates volunteers for 18 months, including for missions in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Upon completion, those seeking Israeli citizenship must extend their stay in the army for another 18 months for men and 6 months for single women in order to comply with the statutory period of compulsory military service for all Israeli. Other options exist for non-Israeli Jews in order to stay temporarily in the army, but for much shorter period of time, which range up from a maximum of three weeks (Sar-El program, feasible from the age of 16) to two months (Marva program , the only charged one, up to 1,500 dollars). In these latter cases, volunteers keep a civilian status even if wearing military uniform and living in regular army barracks. They are restricted to basic tasks in logistics bases under Sar-El, but undergo a military combat training under Marva with, in both cases, additional “educational” activities about Israel and Zionism.

Unlike most other countries, the motivation of the volunteers is not to get nationality. The “Law of Return” in force since 1950 indeed gives jewish nationality to all Jews migrating to Israel (Aliyah). In Israel, the purpose of this welcoming in the army is to “enable young Jews from all over the world to strengthen their relationship with Israel and the Jewish people by volunteering for the IDF. The IDF programs aim to contribute to the defense of Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, and to provide knowledgeable and enthusiastic young leaders for Jewish communities”.1 The number of volunteers for Mahal however seems relatively low. According to Jerusalem Post (2007) only slightly more than one thousand of non-Israeli Jews volunteered from 1988 to 2007. Without available statistics on Mahal, those concerning Sar-El are nevertheless a benchmark : within the 4,011 participants in Sar-El in 2012, the main nationalities by far the most represented were the United States (1,221) and France (1,086) amongst sixty listed countries of origin.

The purpose of this welcoming in the Israeli army is the same as for the many civilian programs available to non-Israeli Jews : the strengthening of the Zionist solidarity networks within the Jewish communities around the world and their ideological maintenance. This strategy has continued since the creation of Israel. Many indeed are the non-Israeli Jews, including in France, to assert their moral belonging to Israel as if it was to compensate for their lack of citizenship of the State of Israel, a permanently “threatened" country to which every Jew must give its contribution. These programs, whether military or civilian, seem to achieve their goals with applicants who generally return more advocates of the Israeli cause than they were before.

However, this is fueling a paradox. On one side a passion for Israel of the Jews living overseas, which manifests itself among other things in Europe by an increasing Jewish migration flow to Israel , particularly from France, and on the other side the increasing proportion of Israelis who leave Israel mainly to North America and Europe looking for a better socio-economic life and tired of the state of permanent war. To the extent that the Israeli net immigration ratio is declining : in 2012 the Israelis leaving Israel were as numerous as the new immigrants (16,000).

The hammered speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who purposely amalgams Zionism and anti-semitism, seeks to increase vocations for Aliyah among the Jewish communities around the world. Echoed by Israel defenders abroad, it increases not without success the perception of the prevailing anti-semitism in discrepancy with the reality of the latter. It helps to boost gestures of solidarity, in particular the enlistment of non - Israeli Jews in the Israeli army to participate, even temporarily, to the defense and to the cohesion of the “Jewish state”. In August 2012, in a welcome speech to a group of Americans which came to join the Israeli army, Benjamin Netanyahu said : ”Today we see a new virulent anti-semitism , and we must defend ourselves against it. The most important task is to defend the Jewish state. This is what we do, this is what you will do and I ’m proud of you".2

The French paradox

For Israel we are far from the case of other countries. What could be of an extreme point of view qualified as mercenary as regards the French Foreign Legion, and simply in the United States as an accession ticket to U.S. citizenship, is only in Israel in support of an ideology, Zionism, to the unique concern of an ethno-religious group, the Jewish community. What also distinguishes the French enlisted in the U.S. Army from his fellow volunteer in the Israeli army, is that one suffers in order to live permanently in the United States its possible participation in military operations performed outside international law as in Iraq in 2003, while the other intentionally participates in the occupation of territories, occupation which is in contradiction with international law. But this approach doesn’t seem to raise any question by anyone, notably in France, nor do the possible implications of French in violating the International Chart of Human Rights or the Laws of War. However, the question remains.

The legitimacy of the process also deserves attention. While on behalf of his belonging to the Jewish community a non-Israeli French finds it legitimate to defend an illegal occupation of territories, wouldn’t a non- Palestinian French, because of his Arab roots, find equally legitimate to defend on the field Palestinians against the illegal expansion of settlements on their territories? Which of these two approaches is based on legitimacy in accordance with both international and French law? Quite a stir is also made about French Muslims which are fighting in Syria alongside the rebellion supported by France, but who wrongly join jihadist groups listed as terrorists. But at the same time nobody talks about those French who, for years, participate with Israeli military uniform to an occupation officially denounced by the United Nations and France. There is at the least a paradox in France and, if we link legitimacy to the Law, there is also a large wavering. Thus, to avoid an awkward situation in which a French citizen wearing an Israeli army uniform confronts in the occupied territories another French citizen supporting the Palestinian cause, it would be appropriate to clarify, vis- à-vis the French law, the legal status of each of these nationals.

2Vanessa Isenson, « Israeli army welcomes North American volunteers », DW.DE, 27 août 2012.