As South Africa vows to arrest dual citizens who serve in the Israeli military, will other countries follow?

It’s unclear exactly how many foreign nationals are serving in the Israel-Hamas war. The IDF didn’t respond to questions about those figures or concerns that other nations might follow South Africa’s example.

Dual nationals make up a sizable share of society in Israel. Many children of foreign-born Israelis also receive second citizenship through their parents.

And Israel’s military has numerous programs to recruit foreigners to serve in the IDF, including in the “Mahal” volunteer program for Jewish people and as “lone soldiers,” who have no other family in Israel. The nonprofit Lone Soldier Center says there are more than 7,000 of them, with 18% from the U.S. and 14% from former Soviet Union states.

LeRoi Taljaard, a 24-year-old from the Johannesburg area, immigrated to Israel with his family from South Africa as a teenager and completed his mandatory military service as an IDF paratrooper. Now a reservist, he was called back into service when the war started and now faces the prospect of never being able to return to South Africa, he said.

These days, his Instagram posts are filled with acerbic comments from strangers saying, “Straight to jail as soon as you land” and “come home, we dare you.”

IDF reservist LeRoi Taljaard.
IDF reservist LeRoi Taljaard.Courtesy of LeRoi Taljaard

“It’s extremely difficult,” Taljaard said in a phone interview from Israel, where he’s spent much of the last four months fighting in the Gaza Strip. “But on the other side, you need to understand what your values are, and what you stand for.”

In South Africa’s case, the warning comes ahead of elections in May, in which the ruling African National Congress is under huge pressure over rampant unemployment, high rates of violence and crumbling infrastructure. Critics have accused the government of stoking hostility toward Israel as a distraction from its own domestic failures.

“They’re statements before an election to try and get more votes for a government party,” said Dorron Kline, CEO of Telfed, a pro-Israel group that supports South Africans immigrating to Israel.

South Africa has been among the fiercest critics of Israel and the war in Gaza, with top leaders often comparing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories to South Africa’s former apartheid regime of racial discrimination.

Still, there are signs that other nations are grappling with whether participation by their citizens in the war can or should be criminalized.

In France, lawmaker Thomas Portes has said 4,000 French citizens are fighting in Israel’s military in the war in Gaza. In a December letter, he demanded that France’s justice minister investigate and prosecute them, although there are no indications France’s government plans to take that step.

The United Kingdom, facing questions about whether its citizens could legally serve in the IDF, published written guidance saying the U.K. “recognizes the right of British nationals with additional nationalities” to serve in those countries “legitimately recognized armed forces,” including the IDF.

In the U.S., where the Biden administration has said it will never withhold support for Israel in its war with Hamas, any efforts to punish Americans serving in the IDF are highly unlikely.

Americans who serve in foreign militaries can lose their U.S. citizenship under specific circumstances, such as if that military is engaged in “hostilities” with the U.S. But experts on U.S. citizenship law say there are no recent examples of that being carried out.

Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, a colonel in Israel’s reserves and former head of the IDF’s international law department, said she didn’t expect any short-term, significant effect on IDF readiness.

“People who are serving in the IDF … are coming here to defend the country in our most precarious security situation since our existence,” said Sharvit-Baruch, now a senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies. “I don’t think these considerations will play a major role in the consideration of specific people to whether to join the IDF.”