/ 7 August 2014

Gaza conflict: For some, war is where the heart is

An estimated 150 South Africans are fighting for the Israel Defence Forces in the current Gaza conflict.
An estimated 150 South Africans are fighting for the Israel Defence Forces in the current Gaza conflict.

“IDF soldier” reads the heading on a poster sent to me by pro-Palestinian activist Shaheed Mahomed. This heading, together with the subheading “A fighter in the KFIR Brigade” and the quote “I’ve always wanted to serve in the IDF [Israel Defence Forces]. This is my country. If I don’t defend it who will?”, accompanies the photograph of a smiling teenager in military uniform. If you didn’t read any further, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were looking at an Israeli soldier.  But scroll down and the caption reads “Cpl Josh Rod, 19 years old, Johannesburg, South Africa”. 

For the past few years, Mahomed and his activist friends have been picketing outside Parliament in Cape Town, calling on the South African government to intervene in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Read more on the Gaza conflict:

They are often joined by pro-Israeli activists and the two groups frequently converse. It was during these discussions that Mahomed first met a young Capetonian named Dean Goodson, who announced that he would be joining the IDF. 

He later came across an article published in the Jerusalem Post last year, which carried a photo of Goodson on patrol and in uniform in Israel.

According to the article, Goodson was born in 1993 to a Jewish family in South Africa, where he attended Jewish day school and was brought up with a “very Zionist education”.

“Every morning, walking through my school’s gates, I saw the Israeli flag proudly standing there,” he is quoted as saying. “That started it all for me.”

The article says that Goodson had joined the IDF and was going through basic training, with the goal of “serving in combat position”, at the time.

Full investigation
Mahomed and other pro-Palestinian activists have since approached the police and successfully asked for a case to be opened against Goodson. “There is now a full investigation into his activities,” he says.  “He is being investigated for contravening the 1988 Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act on the grounds of not having permission from the South African government to operate in a foreign military.”

They are also trying to gather evidence against other individuals (like the young man pictured on the poster, Josh Rod) they suspect have joined the IDF, seeking to have them criminally prosecuted.

According to the Act: “No person may, within the republic or elsewhere, offer to render any foreign military assistance to any state or organ of state … unless he or she has been granted authorisation to offer such assistance.”

In the wake of the latest conflict in Gaza, the United Kingdom-based Arab Organisation for Human Rights expressed concern that an estimated 5 000 dual-nationality citizens are fighting with the IDF in Israeli’s latest operation in the region. It stated that 150 South Africans are involved.

Decision of the heart
But Daniel Levy*, a South African citizen in his 20s who has fought for the IDF, told the Mail & Guardian that an individual needed only to be Jewish to join. “A non-Jewish South African cannot join,” he said. “You have to prove you are Jewish in order to do so, through letters from rabbis and shuls, schools and your parents’ marriage certificate.”

Levy said that his decision to join the IDF was one of the heart. “I joined the IDF because I believe in a Jewish state and I feel every Jew in some way or another must protect his or her home country and not rest on the idea that only Israelis will protect Israel. 

“I remember being a young scholar during the second intifada, hearing about buses being blown up, malls destroyed and thousands of innocent lives being endangered from acts of terrorism. I did not feel comfortable standing on the sidelines witnessing this while my people were fighting and dying to exist in a Jewish state. From that point on I realised that when I graduate I want to be an IDF soldier, protect my home, my family, my friends, my nation and tradition,” he added.

Some pro-Palestinian activists want individuals such as Josh Rod to be prosecuted for contravening the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.

He does not believe that South Africans who join the IDF should face legal repercussions. “We are not mercenaries; we are not recruited [and] we do not hunt and kill everybody,” he said.

“We do not earn in dollars – money is our last thought; we do this straight from our heart to our people.

“If the [South African] government charges us, they should bring an end to their proud motto ‘rainbow nation’ if they cannot accept a certain religion or its belief and duties.” 

A question of allegiance
But Yousha Tayob, a lawyer involved in compiling the Gaza Docket, a dossier alleging that 73 South Africans served illegally in the IDF during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (which took place from December 2008 to January 2009) and sought their prosecution, disagreed.

“If a South African’s allegiance is not to South Africa but to apartheid Israel, then he should go and live there. But, in terms of the Foreign Military Assistance Act, he must be prosecuted.”

Tayob said, although the National Prosecuting Authority had declined to prosecute the 73 individuals, an application for review will be heard in the North Gauteng High Court, either later this year or early next year.

Meanwhile, Ran Greenstein, a professor in the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, who emigrated to South Africa from Israel several years ago, said he is opposed to foreigners serving in any military force in the region. “The last thing we need is more armed militants, from South Africa or elsewhere,” he said. 

According to Greenstein – who says he “spent one year under duress trying to extricate myself from full service in a noncombat unit in the IDF until I eventually succeeded” – the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to be founded on principles of equality and justice.

“The only just solution is to share it equally by granting individual and collective rights to all residents,” he said. “The way forward is a joint struggle by progressive Israeli and Palestinian activists, based on principles of equality of civil and political rights, justice and redress. It won’t be mass-based initially, but has the potential to grow further, along lines similar to the local anti-apartheid movement.”

The IDF had not responded to requests for comment by the time of going to print.

* Not his real name.