South African-Israelis serving in the Israel Defense Forces are not in danger of being convicted for violating South African law, a prominent local community leader said Sunday, relieving fears raised by a lawsuit that pro-Palestinian activists filed last week against a dual citizen currently serving.
“The clear intention of the law, enacted in 1998, is to prohibit South African citizens from serving as mercenaries. None of our soldiers who are immigrants and have been drafted to the Israeli army can be considered mercenaries,” said Dorron Kline, the CEO of Telfed – the South African Zionist Federation (Israel), a Ra’anana-based group serving the immigrant community.
On Thursday, Action Forum in Support of Palestine filed a lawsuit against Dean Goodson, 21, of Cape Town, who is currently serving in the IDF. The pro-Palestinian advocacy group said it plans to open cases against at least four other South Africans that the group believes are enlisted in the IDF. South Africa’s Defense Department said that it has not granted permission to any South African to participate in Operation Protective Edge, adding that it is aware that some may be serving in the IDF without clearance.
But according to Kline, “this is psychological warfare. They’re just trying to get people worried and to keep the issue in the headlines.”
South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act states that citizens are not allowed to “engage in mercenary activity” or “render any foreign military assistance to any state” unless special authorization was granted. Violators may face jail time.
The threat of legal action against South African citizens serving in the Israel army comes up during every major military conflagration in which Israel is involved. However, nobody who served in the IDF has ever been convicted.
In 2009, in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance and Media Review Network, for instance, approached South Africa’s National Prosecution Authority with a list of some 75 South Africans who allegedly fought in Gaza.
“We believe there is prima facie evidence against all of them,” Feroze Boda, the spokesman of a group of South African lawyers representing the NGOs, said at the time, adding that the possibility that war crimes had been committed led them to raise the issue in South Africa.
The threats did not only come from NGOs. In September 2009, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, said he was considering an investigation against Lt. Col. David Benjamin, a South African-born IDF officer, for war crimes committed during Cast Lead. Moreno-Ocampo said he believed he had enough evidence and could prosecute Benjamin as a citizen of South Africa, which is a signatory of the court’s 1998 Rome Statute establishing the international court.
“Assuming the South African authorities have no interest in importing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into their courts, my estimation is that the likelihood of criminal proceedings against South Africans who have served in the IDF is low,” Benjamin, who served in the army’s Advocate General’s international law department, said at the time.
However, Benjamin added, “since one cannot entirely preclude the possibility of partisan political agendas holding sway over objective good sense, one cannot discount the risk altogether.” Therefore, he warned South Africans serving in the IDF to double check before returning to South Africa lest they get in trouble with local authorities.
While community leaders are confident that dual citizens drafted into the IDF and participating in Operation Protective Edge are safe from conviction, the mere fact that legal cases could be opened against them could cause them serious inconvenience. Therefore, immigration groups warn South African Israelis not to post photos of themselves in uniform on social networks.
JTA contributed to this report.