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How can Americans be fighting for Israel in Gaza? Some background

An Israeli soldier gestures on a Merkava tank, as part of the Israeli military’s deployment near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip on July 20. Two Americans fighting for the Israeli Defense Forces have been killed, IDF officials announced Sunday. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANAMENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Israel Defense Forces announced the deaths of 13 soldiers on Sunday as its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip progressed. It was the deaths of two of them, however, that generated significant interest in the United States. They’re both U.S. citizens, raising questions for some about whether it’s legal for Americans to join the Israeli military.

The American casualties are Sean Carmeli, 21, and Max Steinberg, 24. Carmeli was the son of Israeli parents and had dual citizenship, while Steinberg joined the IDF after visiting the country in 2012, his father told the Associated Press.

There is a long history of Americans serving in the IDF. First, Israelis are required to serve in their military, so young Americans living there with dual citizenship must do so as well. And it’s not illegal under U.S. law. 

Many other Jewish Americans join the IDF through programs like Garin Tzabar, which provides a framework for Jews across the world to move to Israel and join the military. Men interested in joining must be between 18 and 23, while women must be between 18 and 22. They must be able to speak Hebrew, have no criminal record and have completed high school, among other requirements.

Some 1,500 teens from across the world have joined the IDF through Garin Tazbar over the last 20 years, the IDF said last year. More than 70 percent have stayed in Israel after serving, Israeli officials say.

More broadly, the State Department acknowledges that U.S. citizens who live in another country may be subject to compulsory military service in that country. There is little the United States can do to prevent it, but U.S. officials warn that there are potential complications.

“Military service by U.S. nationals may cause problems in the conduct of our foreign relations since such service may involve U.S. nationals in hostilities against countries with which we are at peace,” State Department officials said. “For this reason, U.S. nationals facing the possibility of foreign military service should do what is legally possible to avoid such service.”

U.S. officials add, however, that military service for foreign countries “usually does not cause loss of nationality” in the United States because it is difficult to establish the intention to relinquish it.

“On the other hand, voluntary service in the armed forces of a state engaged in hostilities against the United States could be viewed as indicative of an intention to relinquish U.S. nationality,” the State Department says. That includes armed groups identified as terrorist organizations, which the United States has cracked down on significantly since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

U.S. citizens have been known to join other foreign military forces, however, especially the French Foreign Legion. The organization is a branch of the French Army that is open to both French citizens and foreigners. The legion has long had a reputation for drawing a mix of criminals and adventure seekers, and has deployed in recent years to Afghanistan and Mali, the north African country where the French launched military operations against militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.