Israeli Army Backs Soldiers Who Volunteered With African Refugee Children

In repeat of incident from last year, residents of south Tel Aviv accost soldiers playing with kids amid anger at refugee issue

A kindergarten in south Tel Aviv attended by children of Eritrean asylum seekers.
Eyal Toueg

The Israel Defense Forces backed soldiers who volunteered to spend time with asylum-seekers’ children in Tel Aviv earlier this week, after south Tel Aviv residents had shouted at them and tried to dissuade them from their activity.

The IDF said the soldiers’ activity had been approved by the defense and education ministries, as well as the Tel Aviv municipality, and was part of their service.

Neighborhood residents were enraged to see the soldiers, part of a Nahal detail based in south Tel Aviv, playing with the migrant children on Sunday evening. They accosted them, shouted at them and one resident posted a video of the soldiers drawing and dancing with the children on Facebook on Monday morning.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” the woman who filmed the event is heard shouting at one of the soldiers in the video. The soldier replied that she had also served in combat duty.

“You’re arguing with me, an Israeli citizen?” the resident is heard saying on the video. “Is this military service? You know the situation here is sensitive, so why do you come here to take care of them?”

One soldier said, “My commander is here and I’m here as part of my military service.” He then moved away from the site.

Reprise

The soldiers’ volunteer work with asylum-seekers’ children in a south Tel Aviv playground raised a storm last summer after local residents and rightist activists railed against it. In response, the training center commander suspended soldiers’ volunteer work with the Elifelet NGO that organized the project.

Shefi Paz, a neighborhood activist who photographed the soldiers’ activity last year, complained to Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan, who promised her “these spectacles will not be repeated.” At Ben Dahan’s request the IDF said it would reexamine the list of organizations for which soldiers are allowed to volunteer.

Following the criticism of the soldiers’ activity, President Reuven Rivlin said last year, “It is no crime for soldiers to assist helpless refugee children.”

The IDF spokesman told Haaretz that soldiers were permitted to volunteer with any known non-political organization whose activity does not raise controversy in Israeli society.

“These are Nahal soldiers living in the Shapira neighborhood, in the second part of their service, which focuses on contributing to society and social involvement,” the spokesman said.

“On Sunday they were conducting activities for children of the Shapira neighborhood in a public park, regardless of their origin. The unit’s activity has been approved by the defense and education ministries and the municipality,” he said.

Last summer Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman ordered the cancellation of soldiers’ volunteer work with charities assisting asylum-seekers’ children, following complaints by south Tel Aviv residents and right-wing activists.

“It’s more appropriate for IDF soldiers to adhere to the concept of ‘first take care of your own poor’ and help out Holocaust survivors, the needy and the elderly,” Lieberman said.

However, Haaretz reported that despite the criticism, an IDF unit had asked to volunteer with the Elifelet NGO.

The IDF said the Nahal soldiers’ activity this week had nothing to do with the Elifelet NGO.

The Education Corps’ criteria for institutions and groups’ eligibility for volunteers stipulate the organization must be non-profit, recognized and supported by a ministry or local authority, and engaged in legal activity. It must be without political affiliation, refrain from dealing with controversial issues and not engage in activity contrary to the government’s policy and decision.