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Why the dual citizenship debate could work in Israel’s favour

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The debate on dual citizenship has brought to the fore the issue of South Africans serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in an occupation that is in violation of international law. There have been numerous columns and letters published in defense of South Africans serving in the IDF, all of which deny the fact that the IDF is carrying out atrocities that go far beyond those of Apartheid. Any effort to stop South Africans from being a part of such atrocities should be applauded and encouraged, but they don’t have to take place under the guise of banning dual citizenship, a privilege that many South Africans and foreigners in South Africa enjoy, and from which the country continues to benefit. In fact, doing so delivers an inadvertent goal to Israel’s Apartheid programme.


Serving in foreign armies is regulated through the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act 15 of 1998, which precludes South Africans from serving in foreign armed conflicts without prior authorization from the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, through a formal application process. It is under this law that South Africans can be prevented from serving in the IDF – not by fanning an endless debate on dual citizenship that will in the end push many into the Israeli camp.

Such an end result would be a blow to international human rights. Opposition to South Africans serving in the IDF is sizeable and understandable. As evidenced by the success of BDS in South Africa, and a growing number of trade unions taking up the Palestinian cause, the Palestinian issue is becoming a political playing card. But we need to be wary.

There is no question that South Africans should be prevented from serving in the IDF. Evidence given by Israeli soldiers themselves, released by the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence in the wake of the IDF’s 2014 invasion of Gaza, testify to instructions to shoot civilians, terrorize children and systematically destroy Palestinian property. These testimonies make for harrowing reading and are a terrifying example of the IDF’s disregard for the sanctity of life.

“In Nahal Oz there was an incident with kids who’d apparently been sent by their parents to try to get into Israel because their families were hungry, to try to find food…,” said one IDF soldier. “Anything like that, it’s a hunt, fresh turkey.”

“The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing as you go in,” said another. “The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist. And it pretty much stayed that way throughout the operation.”

“Anything you see in the neighborhoods you’re in, anything within a reasonable distance, say between zero and 200 meters – is dead on the spot,” said a third IDF soldier. “No authorization needed.”

According to Defense of Children International, “Israel is the only country in the world that automatically prosecutes children in military courts that lack basic fair trail guarantees”. In the last 14 years, at least 8000 Palestinian children have been arrested and prosecuted – most of them for throwing stones – within a diffuse and torturous military detention system. Here, Palestinian children are interrogated, caged and abused. The IDF feeds all of this.

The fact that some South Africans would willingly volunteer to be a part of this, testifies to the success of the Israeli military establishment’s propaganda machine, and a press and public sector that fans a chronic fear of persecution, which abuses the ongoing wounds of the Holocaust and ultimately results in the dehumanization of Palestinians at all levels. Defending South Africans who want to be a part of this egregious system, is evidence that there are a great many in this country who have not been conscientised to the ways in which systems of oppression work and reinforce one another.

For it is systems of oppression, like Nazism and Zionism, that dehumanize not only victims but perpetrators as well. In sinking to such depths of depravity, IDF soldiers dehumanize themselves. In supporting such acts, a public numbs itself to what it is to be human: the need to eat and drink in safety, to have reliable shelter, to care for one’s children, to have access to education and a right to nationhood – and a government that supports an army that violates these rights steps outside the framework of international law.

“From all the testimonies that reached Breaking the Silence, a very disconcerting picture arises about the way IDF forces were instructed to operate during combat in Gaza,” the authors of the Breaking the Silence report write. “The operation, which was conducted under a policy determined by the most senior commanding ranks who instructed the soldiers’ conduct, casts grave doubt on the IDF’s ethics.”

An Israeli youth slowly waking up to the atrocities of an army that purports to represent them should be given a stronger voice. Efforts by South African leaders to stop South Africans from joining the IDF are laudable, but doing so under the guise of banning dual citizenship hints at an underlying xenophobia that needs to be confronted and questioned. There are many foreigners who live in South Africa and hold two passports. Whether they hail from Africa, the East or Europe, their dual citizenship allows them an intellectual and commercial mobility that benefits both countries.

Threatening the right to hold dual citizenship based on the support of a very small part of the South African public for the IDF threatens to push elements of our society who might otherwise not side with Israel’s absolutist Apartheid policies, into Israel’s corner. But the two issues need to be separated: the right to dual citizenship should be protected in order to preserve the intellectual and cultural colour of our country; while enlisting in the IDF and other mercenary activities in which there is clear irrefutable evidence that they are flouting international laws governing armed conflict and oppressing populations – the definition of liberation demands careful examination – can be prevented through the Act already in place. Taking this middle road protects and preserves our common humanity.

Written by:

Karen Jayes

CAGE Africa