Why are British citizens allowed to fight for Israel, but not for Palestine?
David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian’s foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
Cross-posted from Middle East Eye
One man rejoiced at the images of Palestinian men from Beit Lahia in northern Gaza stripped to their underwear barefoot and being forced to sit on the street – images that stunned and revolted the rest of the world in equal measure.
He was Aryeh Yitzhak King, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
King wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter: “If it were up to me, I would have dispatched D-9 bulldozers and put them behind the mounds of dirt and would have given the order to cover all these hundreds of ants, while they’re still alive.”
King is a British citizen whose parents emigrated from Britain to Israel. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Israeli army’s Givati Brigade, and has since made it his life’s mission to judaise occupied East Jerusalem. King still holds British citizenship.
“As a British citizen as well as emanating from a family with close ties to the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, I was both surprised and dismayed to read that Britain has joined several European countries in ‘reiterating grave concerns’ regarding construction in the Jerusalem area.”
King said construction in Jerusalem was an internal Israeli matter, and just as Israel would not presume to discuss or dispute the borders of London or Paris, he would have expected the same respect from “your government”.
Justifying war crimes
As a British citizen, King would be of interest to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Team, which has a responsibility to support the International Criminal Court ( ICC) investigations into any war crimes committed by Israel or Hamas in the region since 7 October.
Should King reappear in the UK, he might have to answer for comments he made about the Palestinian people like these: “They aren’t human beings and not human animals. They’re subhuman and that’s how they should be treated”, “eradicate the memory of Amalek, and never forget”. Amalek is in reference to a biblical verse calling for the extermination of every man, woman and child, and their livestock, belonging to an ancient enemy of the Jewish people.
King is far from unique.
There is Eylon Levy, from north London, who has become spokesman for the Israeli government. Levy has consistently tried to downplay the lethality of Israel’s bombing campaign. Levy used data, proved later to be false, attempting to show that Israel was achieving less than 0.8 deaths per air strike. “That’s what world-leading precision looks like,” Levy tweeted.
Peter Lerner, who moved to Israel from Kenton, north London, when he was 12, has become the face of the Israeli army. As a lieutenant colonel, he is the army’s spokesman for the international media. Lerner dismissed the idea that the Israeli army’s response was disproportionate. He said in an interview with LBC that proportionality was about “military necessity” not about the number of civilians killed.
As of writing, the Palestinian death toll has reached 18,412, the majority women and children.
I would like to see Lerner and Levy defend that number of deaths before the ICC or any court of law in his native Britain. Both seem to me to be justifying war crimes.
Then there is Lt-Col Richard Hecht, the Scottish colonel used as the voice of the Israeli army. Hecht, who moved to Israel from Newton Mearns in the 1980s, promised in the earliest stages of the war that the Israeli army would respond “very, very severely” to the Hamas attack.
There is also Zecharia Deutsch, who took leave of absence as Jewish chaplain to several universities in Yorkshire to join the fight as a reservist. Deutsch, an Israeli citizen who has a pastoral role to students in the University of Leeds and Sheffield, sent a series of videos to his students defending the Israel army’s campaign in Gaza.
“If you know the real story of what’s been going on here in Israel over the last thousands of years and over the last hundred years, no one could deny that Israel is dealing with this war with the utmost morality and good ethics,” said Deutsch in one video, in which he appears to be wearing an Israeli military uniform.
The secret of Israel’s foreign fighters
The actual number of British Jews and dual nationals fighting in the Israeli army is a secret which both Israel and the British government keep close to their chest.
Sam Sank, an Israeli army reservist from Stanmore in north London told The Times that judging from the number of his friends in the army, there were “hundreds, if not thousands” more Britons fighting in Israel.
But the numbers involved are not the only question the British government refuses to answer.
That same questionis being asked today by lawyers acting for the International Centre for Justice for Palestinians (ICJP).
It is this: “Is it a criminal offence for British citizens to travel to Israel and or the Occupied Palestinian Territory to fight for the Israeli army or any other state or non-state actor?”
It is a question that neither the Foreign Office nor the Home Office want to answer. In fact when Middle East Eye put this question to them, their press offices referred the question to each other.
There is a simple reason for their silence.
If they say it is not a criminal offence for a dual national citizen of Britain and Israel to fight in the Israeli army, on the grounds that Israel is a state actor, how do they explain their explicit prohibition of Britons fighting in Ukraine?
After The Sun revealed that a 19-year-old Coldstream Guard was among four missing British soldiers to have travelled to fight Russia in Ukraine, Grant Shapps, then transport secretary, told troops: “You cannot just get up and go”, adding that Britons travelling to Ukraine to fight risked worsening a “dangerous situation”.
Britain obviously did not want to become even more belligerent in the Ukraine war than it was already, by supplying long-range missiles to Kiev. And it was not shy of telling its citizens to stay out.
The Foreign Office advice on Ukraine states unequivocally: “If you travel to Ukraine to fight, or to assist others engaged in the war, your activities may amount to offences under UK legislation and you could be prosecuted on your return.”
But no such qualms are expressed about Israel.
When this question was first raised by Warsi, the government hid behind the fig leaf of state actors and non-state actors. They also said that Israel did not declare war in the 2014 operation against Gaza.
Warsi found this intolerable and said so in an interview with MEE. “If you go out there and fight for any group, you will be subject to prosecution when you get back. If you go out and fight for Assad, I presume, under our law, that is okay. That can’t be right,” she said.
“The only reason we allow the loophole to exist is because of the IDF [Israeli army], because we are not brave enough to say if you hold British citizenship, you make a choice. You fight for our state only. That has to go out strong.”
When the same question was put in parliament, Tom Tugendhat, the Home Office minister for security, made two points that contradict each other.
The first was that the UK recognises the right of dual nationals to sign up for military service in the country of their other nationality – in itself a deeply problematic contention.
Does the UK recognise the right of British Syrians to fight for President Bashar al-Assad?
But Tugendhat went on to say that anyone who travels to conflict zones to engage in unlawful activity should expect to be interrogated on return.
Clearly everything the Israeli army is doing to the civilian population of Gaza – displacement, carpet bombing, turning hospitals into battlegrounds, targeting injured patients who are trying to evacuate, bombing UN shelters, forcing mothers to put down their babies and leave them in the road, stripping civilians down to their underpants and forcing one of them to carry a Kalashnikov – is unlawful and a war crime in terms of long-standing international law.
Being part of the military machine that commits these heinous crimes, either as a combatant or as a spokesman, would de facto leave you open to prosecution on return to the UK.
Will this ever happen?
The UK government under any prime minister will strain every sinew to stop it from happening, despite their frequent protestations that each decision is a matter for the director of public prosecutions.
But each government which kicks this burning question under the carpet for another few years should beware of what this loophole is doing to community relations here at home.
Is it really right for a British Jew to fight for Israel, in what he or she assumes is its hour of need, and not for British Palestinians to join non-proscribed groups like Fatah and defend his village or town in the occupied West Bank?
Is it right to take no action against Britons who justify war crimes, while prosecuting Palestinian supporters demonstrating on London’s streets for hate speech? What can be more hateful than wanting to see innocent civilians buried alive?
How can this double standard apply without affecting community relations in the UK?
Surely the only fair answer is to ban all British nationals from fighting abroad, no matter what the country or the cause.
Israel is not only becoming the graveyard of efforts to enforce international law and produce a rules-based world order. It is very specifically becoming the graveyard of the rule of law in Britain.