Filmmaker: Ashraf Mashharawi
In November 2013, Elena Zakusilo, a Ukrainian Jewish woman, appeared on the Ukrainian TV show “Lie Detector”, revealing that she worked for the Israeli army and continued to do so.
“The first time I killed was difficult for me. I threw the weapon and said I wasn’t going anywhere. But I went,” she said and admitted to having killed civilians, including children.
Countries across the globe, including France and Britain, sometimes employ foreign nationals in their armies. Britain recruits citizens of the Commonwealth nations, and France has the Foreign Legion. At the other end of the spectrum, South Africa has strict anti-mercenary laws, according to which any kind of mercenary activity is illegal for South Africans.
As thousands of foreign ‘lone soldiers’ are serving in the Israeli military, Al Jazeera went to find out how and why Israel encourages volunteers from the Jewish diaspora and beyond to work in its army, both as paid soldiers on the front line and volunteers in non-combat roles.
What drives foreigners to join an army which is sometimes heavily criticised for its human rights violations? Are they comparable to volunteers joining opposition groups in Syria? And is the phenomenon of foreign nationals volunteering for the Israeli army a problem, and if so, why?
We have Jews and non-Jews alike. I've taken survivors from the Holocaust... groups of old ladies from Texas who are not Jewish that support Israel and want to come and show their support for the soldiers and for the people who are fighting terrorism. So, it ranges absolutely across the board.
During the two-year investigation, Al Jazeera made contact with organisations specialised in recruiting and bringing people to Israel and spoke to a group of Israel’s so-called lone soldiers, professional recruits of different nationalities.
All of the soldiers said that they’d received training in professional Israeli combat units and had taken part in the 2014 attacks on Gaza. Each of them had different motives for joining – from wanting to avenge the Holocaust on behalf of their family, to a deep commitment to Zionism, or being inspired as a child by the action movie ‘Raid On Entebbe’.
“We have Jews and non-Jews alike. I’ve taken survivors from the Holocaust… groups of old ladies from Texas who are not Jewish that support Israel and want to come and show their support for the soldiers and for the people who are fighting terrorism. So, it ranges absolutely across the board,” Steve, an Israeli military trainer, told Al Jazeera.
The volunteers are recruited by organisations like Sar-El, The Lone Soldiers Center, and Mahal-IDF-Volunteers which have branches across Europe and use their networks, social media, websites and the press to attract people to take part in a variety of programmes.
Counterterrorism analyst and historian Jahan Mahmood questions whether it is “acceptable… for certain programmes to be in place that encourage people to join the Israeli Defense Forces.”
“I think it’s shocking, largely because if you read through the human rights abuses that have been conducted by them…. Why would you want to encourage young people, or even old people, to be involved in such heinous crimes?
“It is sending out a very wrong message and in the case of governments in Europe who claim to be fighting extremism at the same time, I think it’s highly duplicitous. It is hypocritical and contradictory to the work that they claim to be involved in, which is to stop people involved in violation of human rights,” Mahmood told Al Jazeera.