The French provide some of the most important contingents of volunteers in the Israeli army. If until now the French state seems to have closed it eyes on this affair, the admission of Palestine to the International Court of Justice is likely to be a game-changer.
On 4 January 2017, the Franco-Israeli Elor Azaria, sergeant in the Israeli army (IDF), was convicted by a military tribunal of voluntary manslaughter. On 24 March 2016, he had been filmed while killing, with one shot to the head, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a 21 year-old Palestinian involved in a knife attacked against Israeli soldiers, near the settlement of Tel Rumeida around Hebron. This judgment has rekindled debate on the engagement of French citizens in the IDF.
‘Give up some of your time for Tsahal’
There are five volunteer programs for foreign citizens who wish to get involved with the IDF. The only condition is to be recognized as a ‘jew’ according to the criteria laid down by the state of Israel. These programs include a course of Hebrew, physical training and lessons in the history of Israel and of Zionism.
The Sar’El program recruits unpaid 16 year-olds to work in a military base for up to three weeks. The tasks are diverse – prepare meals for soldiers and first aid kits, clean military equipment, etc. For its part, Marva recruits 18 to 24 year-old volunteers who wish ‘to experience and try out life on a military base’.
Three other programs involve wearing a uniform and carrying arms.
Created in May 2010, Mahal recruits 18 to 23 year-old males and 18 to 20 year-old females for a military engagement of 14 to 18 months. The principal ambition of this program is to accompany ‘lone soldiers’, volunteers who have no relative in Israel nor Israeli nationality. On its site, Mahal claims to have already involved more than 350 youngsters from around the world, including French citizens. The allocation varies depending on each person’s medical profile and physical capacities. They have access to all the regular IDF units, outside of elite units.
Anyone fearful of such direct engagement on his/her own can join Garin Tsabar, a program of staged enrolment, beginning with residence in a kibbutz before being allocated to a unit.
The last program is directed at students. Atouda permits them to pursue studies in an Israeli school, doing their basic military training during their holidays. The army absorbs university expenses of up to €2,080 per annum. At the completion of their studies, these students commit themselves to complete their three year military service, for both men and women.
Among advantages offered, these young volunteers benefit from pay equivalent to other military personnel, but tax-free. In addition, several organizations offer assistance with lodgment and food.
France tops the volunteer list
Several reports have already drawn attention to the presence of French citizens in the IDF. According to Le Nouvel Obs, The Mahal program included almost 500 French people at the time of the Israeli attack on the Gaza strip during summer 2014. One of them, Jordan Bensemhoun, was killed in Gaza’s Shuja’ivya quarter. The Deputies Jean-Jacques Candelier (Parti Communiste) and Pouria Amirshahi (ex-Parti Socialiste) had immediately questioned the government on possible judicial proceedings against them and on the activities of these young people who “fuel tension between the communities and import into France … a conflict that endangers national unity”.
But the examples accumulate. On 30 October 2015, it is a Franco-Israeli soldier, Alison Bresson, who executes, at a checkpoint on the Nablus road, Qasem Saba’aneh, 19 years-old, and seriously wounds Fares Al Na’asane, 17 years-old. In 2016, she [AB] was invited to light one of the twelve torches traditionally featured in the ceremony of the Israeli national day, Yom Ha’atzmaout.
The French Defense Minister relies on a convention, signed 30 June 1959, gazetted in the Journal Officiel on 19 December 1961, establishing an accord between Israel and the French authorities on the terms of authorization of military service for those with dual nationality. However, the volunteer soldiers do not have Israeli citizenship. They are French, and are not covered by this convention.
Moreover, article 2 of an administrative arrangement of 20 March 1963, gazetted in the Journal Officiel, highlights that, to be recognized as a ‘permanent resident’ in Israel, it is necessary to reside in territory under which Israeli law applies. Premonitory of post-1967, this arrangement does not recognize the right of French citizens possessing Israeli nationality to fulfill military service in Israel if they reside in the Occupied Territories. If martial law applies in these territories, the Occupation nonetheless remains illegal according to international law.
It seems impossible to obtain precise figures. France is regularly mentioned as one of the countries providing the most volunteers. According to Israeli broadcaster i24 News, in 2014 the IDF included 3,384 foreign volunteers, 70 per cent being males. One quarter were of American origin, and the rest were distributed amongst different countries including France.
However, according to the Franco-Israeli blog Coolamnews, the French now count as the first nationality involved: in 2015, 43 per cent of the total came from France against 38 per cent from the US. Moreover, 90 per cent of volunteers were serving in combatant units.
Other issues implicating France in Israeli politics deserve exposure. In 2016, the number of French people living in Israel has been estimated at 150,000. Among them, between 15,000 and 20,000 live in illegal West Bank settlements, participating with total impunity in the spoliation of Palestinian land.
On 10 March 2016, Nathalie Goulet, UDI [Union des Démocrates et Indépendants] Senator from the Orne, wrote to the Secretary of State for the Budget, Christian Eckert, a propos a tax dodge permitting French citizens to make tax-free donations to the IDF. She subsequently received death threats via social media, but no response from the Government.
A genuine feeling of insecurity
Between the Ilan Halimi affair , the attack by Mohamed Merah against a Jewish school in Toulouse  and that by Amedy Coulibaly against a kosher supermarket on the eastern perimeter of Paris , those signing up for these Israeli programs experience a genuine feeling of insecurity in France, fostering a sectarian withdrawal.
The French Jewish community seems to be caught in a vice between several dynamics. On the one hand, although significant proportion of French Jews do not feel strongly linked to the Middle East, the political atmosphere at home perennially draws their attention to the situation there. Given that the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) supports unconditionally the Netanyahu Government, its officials reinforce in the minds of the most susceptible the idea of a link between the Israeli polity and French citizens of Jewish faith.
Certain events reinforce this reductive mentality, such as the information session for potential volunteer recruits organized at the Grande synagogue de la Victoire, in Paris’ 9th arrondissement on 26 May 2013. For the more undecided, the official present offered individual meetings at the Israeli Embassy.
Since the 1990s, the Israeli Right has demanded that the Great Powers recognize Israel as ‘the state of the Jewish people’. Already in 1985, the Knesset had debated an amendment aiming to define Israel as ‘the state of the Jewish people and of some Arab citizens’. At the time, a majority of the Knesset Deputies strongly rejected this wording, considering that the concept of citizenship refers to a juridical statute which confers rights and duties and establishes a nation of equals on a territory where all have an equal share in the exercise of sovereign rights.
In fact, the state is not able on the one hand to bequeath membership to some individuals who are not citizens whereas others who are citizens but not Jews could be considered as excluded from membership of this state. Nevertheless, the Netanyahu Government uses and abuses this rhetoric [of the Jewish state], profiting from all attacks against Jews globally to call them to emigrate to Israel.
This language in effect serves Israeli political interests in creating the impression of a similarity between anti-Semitic acts in France and events in Israel/Palestine. In other words, the unbalanced individual who justifies attacks against Jews on French soil in the name of the Palestinian people reinforces in the mind of one part of the Jewish community the idea that it faces the same threat as Israeli Jews.
Moreover, this mentality operates to erase the strictly nationalist aspirations of Palestinian militants. Thus, colonization, occupation, imprisonment of children, all these injustices perpetrated by the Israeli government against the Palestinian population are perceived at best as a ‘lesser evil’ for the security of the Jewish people, at worst as the affirmation by force of the inalienable rights of this people to the ‘Promised Land’.
What about international law?
The colonization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the military occupation and all that it implies in terms of arbitrary arrests and humiliation, the erection of a 8-metre high wall over hundreds of kilometres, the blockade of the Gaza strip – all these acts are unambiguously condemned by international law. Amnesty International had denounced the occurrence of ‘war crimes’ during the Israeli military operation of summer 2014. On Friday 23 December 2016, the UN Security Council condemned Israeli ongoing settlement creation in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In this context, no-one doubts that each individual enlisted in the IDF renders themselves indubitably complicit with these injustices. In other words, such individuals find themselves outside international law.
On 1 April 2015, Palestine became the 123rd member of the International Court of Justice. The prospect of an inquest on and prosecution of Israeli colonization or of crimes of occupation is conceivable. Besides the necessity of taking political decisions in France on these violations of law by Israel and the involvement of French citizens, a condemnation of Israel before the ICJ could reinforce the imperatives of prosecution against the latter.
Thomas Vescovi teaches and researches contemporary history. He is the author of Bienvenue en Palestine (Kairos, 2014) and Le Mémoire de la Nakba en Israël (L’Harmattan, 2015).
Translated by Evan Jones.
* The author omitted mention of the figure of Gilad Shalit, Franco-Israeli captured by Hamas in June 2006 and held as hostage for five years. Shalit’s role in Palestinian oppression has been submerged into his current status as an icon of Israeli righteousness, being accorded (according to his English Wikipedia entry – that strictly non-partisan outlet on anything to do with Israel!) honorary citizenship of ‘Paris, Rome, Miami, New Orleans, Baltimore and Pittsburgh’.
* On 10 February, the National Front Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen warned that her preferred France is one where citizens with dual nationality including a non-European country will have to choose one or the other. Ariel Kandel, CEO of Qualita, which represents French immigrants to Israel, claimed to Haaretz that Le Pen’s proposal is an “attack on our Jewish identity, because we see ourselves as connected to both France and Israel … We live in an age of complex identities …[but] they say we have to choose between our Israeli and French identities.” Liberté, égalité, fraternité – now one wears it, now one parodies it.