The British children who train to fight in Israel

How each year scores of British teenagers go to the Middle East to learn about soldiering and defend

In 2001 shocking reports surfaced from Gaza of summer schools being organised by Islamic Jihad, which were teaching Palestinian adolescents to become suicide bombers. The Israeli government denounced the camps as evidence that a new generation was being brought up to hate and to kill.

What went unreported was that at a purpose-built barracks in the Negev desert, every summer hundreds of Jewish teenagers from Europe, Mexico and America pay to spend nine weeks saluting, marching, firing guns and otherwise pretending to be soldiers.

Marva, run by the Educational and Youth Corps of the Israel Defence Force and conducted entirely in Hebrew, simulates the basic training of Israeli conscripts for 18-28 year old members of the Diaspora. Dressed in boots and olive fatigues, and obliged to carry an M16 assault rifle at all times, school leavers on gap years do push ups in the dust, perform night marches with laden stretchers, maintain civil defence shelters, fire machine guns at paper figures and simulate military manoeuvres, as well as taking classes in Jewish identity and the history and values of the IDF. Karaoke and dance-offs also feature.

With the security situation improving, increasing numbers of British Jews, through youth groups such as RSY Netzer and Federation of Zionist Youth, are signing up to one of the four 120-strong sessions held every year. One half are girls, and large numbers come from public schools in Manchester and North London.

Blogs written by participants revel in the camouflage-induced machismo. "By the end of the first week we were beginning to look like soldiers" writes American Joseph Fisher. "Strict discipline is enforced by our mefakdim (commanders). There is a great atmosphere of camaraderie."

Participants deny that the course was overtly anti-Palestinian. "I never heard that sort of comment from an official source – although there were some very right wing individuals taking part," says Mark Fitch, a Manchester student who took the course last year. "There was a lot of debate about the IDF, and whilst obviously by going on Marva they implicitly endorsed the army, a lot of people said that they were torn about using guns and running about."

Since the start of the Second Intifada some aspects of the course have been reconsidered. Sessions on house-to-house fighting have been dropped, as have re-enactments of the Battle of Ammunition Hill, one of the bloodiest engagements of the Six Day War, has been cut. "They're very aware of looking politically correct," says Fitch. "When discussing the Middle East they really do try to present both sides of the story and the overriding message is of striving for peace.

Most recently, British 16 and 17 year olds have been able to take part in Gadna, the week-long course taken by Israeli schoolchildren in preparation for military service and which has recently come under fire for becoming increasingly militaristic. "Shooting an M16 gun… physically lying on the land of Israel, learning how to defend it, gave me an immense sense of pride" writes a breathless Aimee Riese, a London schoolgirl and recent participant, in the Jewish Chronicle.

And this, really, is the objective.

The IDF website states that Marva seeks to "strengthen the bond between the Jewish people and their land". Goelman, somewhat naïvely, writes of the pride he felt in being mistaken for a genuine conscript by grateful elderly Israelis. Others are more sceptical. "It's just playing toy soldiers," says Isi Genn Bash, a British student who spent her gap year on a kibbutz. "They make no actual contribution to the IDF. It's really just very silly."

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, a state organisation that coordinates Jewish settlement and Diaspora gap year programmes, agreed. "It's not an easy programme, but it doesn't come close to being in the army – we certainly don't see these British kids as soldiers."

Participants are told on leaving of their responsibility to act as ambassadors for the 'misunderstood' IDF. "Israel sees the 70,000 Diaspora kids we host every year as advocates: people who will stand up for Israel when it is under threat and attacked and will challenge bad views, especially on university campuses" the spokesman said. "Most won't ever emigrate to Israel, but we need to educate them to defend their spiritual homeland by arguing for it."

Hence the desire to get Jewish teenagers to see the Middle East crisis through the eyes of an IDF recruit. "The decommissioned guns we carried weren't meant to symbolise weapons – they were there so we could really understand what it felt to be a soldier" says Fitch. "Just by carrying it we were able to empathise more with the IDF."

Whilst some participants sign up as prospective Israeli citizens in order to sample the three-year military service, or because a relative had served in the IDF, for most it is essentially a holiday. "There's an implicit aim to associate a fun experience with the Israeli army" says Micah Smith, a Rabbi's son who spent a gap year in Israel but decided against the Marva programme. "It definitely glorifies the army [and] the supposedly exciting life of a soldier."

Participants are encouraged to take photographs, with images of themselves smeared in camo paint, straddling tanks and toting rifles appearing on Facebook. One video hosted on YouTube shows the teenagers pretending to raid a toilet block with M16s whilst another has a young girl crouching behind a machine gun that leaps in her hands. And these kids, in olive fatigues with thick glossy hair and ubiquitous aviator sunglasses, look sharp. "Fifty per cent of going on Israel tour is about getting laid" one participant tells me.

Israel has always held a policy of 'Aliyah' – the birthright of Jews to settle in the Middle East. But Marva demonstrates how some Zionists have inadvertently come to mimic their opponents in defining Israel solely by its militarism. The website of Federation of Zionist Youth, one of the largest and most hard-line organisers of gap years, states "FZY feels that you cannot truly understand Israel and the people living their [sic] if you do not understand the army." And that, for many Jews, must be rather depressing.

There's not much to be won in games of moral equivalence and assertions as to which side's indiscriminate attacks on civilians are the more reprehensible. But ask yourself this question: If these were British Muslim 19 year-olds firing machine guns and running assault courses in Pakistan or Yemen, would we not have them all arrested at the airport?

Related video links
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=k_aatIlgcmI
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=VM7tDiIzIHk
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=909xamDTsz4