From Jerusalem to Damascus

Jonathan Shamir

When four Islamic State militants were neutralised and Israeli rockets were fired at targets in Syria last month, Israeli state officials were typically laconic. The events in Syria have been used by various groups, both inside and outside Syria, to assert themselves on the geopolitical stage. The country has been divided into fiefdoms in a bloody conflict which has exposed differences between regional and international actors. Despite this all unfolding along part of her northern border, Israel has been clandestine in its military and humanitarian operations during the gruelling civil war.

Israel’s dealings are reflective of a wider geopolitical trend of increased covert cooperation with Arab states. The mutual distrust of Iran, catalysed by a bitter distaste for the nuclear deal, and the need for shared intelligence to combat ISIS have changed the topography in accordance with the mantra ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

But this distance shouldn’t prevent examination and accountability for Israel’s conduct in Syria.

Whilst Jordan and Lebanon have absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Israel has not taken in a single refugee from the Syrian conflict. This led leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog to criticise the government’s stance: “Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven.” The atrocities of the war, and particularly the chemical weapons employed, have poignantly rekindled the memory of the Holocaust for many Jews, and this has been reflected through vast charitable donations coming from the Israeli populus.

Nevertheless, a tokenistic gesture on behalf of the state, similar to Menachem Begin’s welcoming of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, is seen as too much of a risk. Israel’s humanitarian approach has been riddled with such ironies. Israel has treated around 2500 Syrians in its hospitals, whilst violating principles of non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country where they could be persecuted. This reveals a deep conflict at the core of Israel’s approach to refugees, which extends to the Palestinian refugee problem: the moral onus to support refugees often runs directly counter to security needs, but more crucially, the motivation to maintain a Jewish majority.

So has Israel done enough to navigate this internal tension?

Israel has instead been directing money to Jordanian refugee camps on top of its medical assistance, which should certainly be lauded. One Syrian, who founded a website thanking Israel for their medical assistance to Syrians, now lives in Turkey. His swift exit from the country reveals the stigma, and even danger, of accepting any potential asylum in Israel.

But there is power in gesture, and herein lies a gaping hole in Israel’s international policy. The idea has even been thrown around by The Forced Migration Review that re-opening the Golan Heights to displaced Syrians could be a means of improving and eventually normalising relations with a country that has boycotted Israel since its inception. However this move would never be proposed, let alone pass, by the current government, which is being pulled even further to the right.

As is often the case in Israel, humanitarian ideals are frequently subordinated to security needs. Israel has vested interests in combatting the expansive training and fighting experience of Hezbollah, which will survive the loss of 1500 fighters. There is also a fear that, once the situation has calmed in Syria, the northern border, recently Israel’s quietest, may turn into a battlefront as the Shia forces will threaten Israel’s newly constructed fence. The ten recorded deliberate shootings over the Israeli-Syrian border, incidentally, were all attributed to pro-Assad forces.

This explains why Israel is sitting tight and undertaking limited and precise military intervention, as the border control is kept wary by intermittent improvised explosive devices, shootings and mortar attacks.

Furthermore, Israel has furthered its strategic interests of weakening Iran and Hezbollah through small air sorties and selectively targeted aid in the battlefield, extending beyond civilians to Jabhat al-Nusra and other southern rebel groups. Strategic assistance and military supplies were offered in addition to medical assistance.

What about Syria’s impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Firstly, Israel’s security officials have had their attention diverted elsewhere. Guns, after all, are more potent than knives, and nuclear bombs are more powerful than mortar shells.

The bloodshed on Israel’s doorstep has also diverted hostile forces in the region, as well as international attention, away from Israel. This has coincided with a period of impasse with the Palestinians, frustrating the Obama administration and contributing to its decision to abstain, rather than veto, UN resolution 2234. It reveals the reality of Israeli decision-making: Israel does not act unless it is under political, military, or security-related pressure.

Hence rather than using this diversion as an opportunity to improve relations with the Palestinians, Israel has sat back and maintained the status quo. For the moment, the shifting sands of international politics mean the world’s attentions are elsewhere in the Middle East, and therefore progress towards a two-state solution is unlikely.