They come from all over the world, leaving behind their families and comfortable life in order to join the IDF and defend Israel. What makes these young people, known as ‘lone soldiers’, risk their lives for a country they barely know? Sima Borkovski finds out.

“I felt that if there is any place in the world I can call home it is Israel,” says Gleb Dogmarov, 25, who came to Israel from Moscow right after completing his formal education.

Though he came as part of a Jewish Agency program called “Sela” (rock in Hebrew) he didn’t need anyone to convince him to serve in the IDF.

An IDF soldier in a Hammas tunnel in Rafah

An IDF soldier in a Hamas tunnel in Rafah

“Serving in the army helps you feel part of the country, part of its people. I felt support all around me, from my officers and from the community. Fellow soldiers would invite me for the weekends and on holidays so I won’t feel alone,” he explains.

Gleb is part of a unique club called “lone soldiers”: young people who come from western countries, leaving their families and comfortable life behind in order to fight a war in a distant country.  Some of them experience anti-Semitism in their home countries – like Gleb, who admits that he had fights with children who called him names at school.

The numbers are astonishing. According to the Lone Soldier Centerthere are approx. 2,000 lone soldiers from the United States serving in the IDF, and about 4,600 foreign soldiers in total who are currently in active service. 800 -1,000 lone soldiers join the Israeli army every year.

According to Gleb, lone soldiers are better fighters because “they have nothing to lose and they have only themselves to count on”.

During the current operation in Gaza, three lone soldiers were killed in battle (out of a total number of 64 dead soldiers). This high rate is likely due to the fact that such soldiers often do their best to serve in elite unites such as Golani and Givati.

Members of the UK delegation at March of the Living in Auschwitz. Photo: Sam Churchill

Members of the UK delegation at March of the Living in Auschwitz. Photo: Sam Churchill

I catch up with Ariel,22, a lone soldier from Russia who is on his last day of service in the team that operates Iron Dome, the missile system that protects Israel from the rockets fired by Hamas.

Ariel arrived in Israel in 2009 and says that participating in the annual March of the Living at Auschwitz-Birkenau made him realize that he belongs in Israel. “During those days, the Jews had no country or army to defend them. I feel that it is my duty to join the Israeli army and defend Israel,” he explains.

Ariel says he has been embraced by Israeli society, especially during this operation. “Many people come from afar to bring us food and support us. I feel that it is my privilege to serve in this particular unit,” he concludes.

Are lone soldiers Jihadist? 

In her Al Jazeera article ‘Fighting Jihad for Israel‘, Hannie Hassan claims that lone soldiers can be compared with Jihadi terrorists. Islam and Middle East specialist and researcher Assaf Regev refutes these accusations.

“The meaning of the Jihad is “effort” and Jihadist or Mujahidan are people who invest all their efforts in the battle field. However the radical Islamists have taken this definition to the extreme. The first difference is the connection of these fighters to the land they are fighting for. While lone soldiers have families in Israel and are connected to it as part of being Jewish, Jihadist fighters usually have no connection to the country aside for their ideological agenda. They will fight in Syria, then go to Iraq or Lebanon and so on.

“The IDF is a legitimate army that is recognized by many countries, some of them Muslim countries such as Egypt and Jordan, who also cooperate with it on a regular basis.

Moreover, Jihadists usually come from low economic background while most of the lone soldiers come from Western countries and established families. Therefore Israel does not “use their weakness” or brainwash them in order to come and serve in its army.

The lone soldier is not tempted by large sums of money like the Jihadist terrorist. The Jihadists kill many of their fellow people for various reasons – they are not Muslims or not Muslim enough etc.  There is no ground to make such accusations,” he summarizes.