Israel Pulse

Israeli Arabs divided over Assad

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Article Summary
The Israeli Arab Joint List party didn’t straightforwardly condemn the gas attack in Idlib, thus provoking the ire of many Israeli-Arab citizens.

“This is no longer a question of an alliance between three parties with no real connection between them and no ideological glue binding them. This is a scandal within the home, within the party.” This is how a veteran activist of Hadash from the town of Umm Al-Fahm described how his party blocked an official condemnation by the Joint List party (an alliance of parties that includes Hadash) of the chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime forces.

Hadash, a successor to the defunct Israeli communist party, is the largest component of the Joint List, created ahead of the 2015 general elections — a union that made it the third largest faction in the Knesset when it garnered 13 of its 120 seats.

Much has already been said and written about the ideological differences among the parties comprising the list, which were forced to band together or risk disappearing from the Israeli political map after a 2014 decision to raise the electoral threshold (which would have required each to get four seats in order to get into the Knesset). But this latest disagreement, which has become the talk of the Israeli-Arab street, focuses on the particular position of Hadash regarding the war crimes committed by Assad’s forces against residents of the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.

The bloody Syrian civil war has already offered spectators all sorts of terrible sights; nevertheless, no one in Israel could remain indifferent to the pictures of civilians — children, women, men — suffering and dying after being sprayed with lethal sarin nerve gas thrown at their town by Syrian army airplanes. On April 9, Israel’s diplomacy and defense Cabinet met to consider offering medical treatment to children affected by the chemicals, in addition to the treatment provided regularly to Syrians injured in fighting in areas close to the Israeli border. On the same day, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin toured the Ziv Hospital in the northern town of Safed where injured Syrians are hospitalized. At the same time, Israelis set up a fund to provide immediate medical help to Syrian children, and within eight days they managed to collect most of the targeted amount – 300,000 Israeli shekels ($82,000).

Given this mobilization, it is clear why Israeli Jews and Arabs alike were astounded when central activists of the Hadash party, considered a bulwark of humane principles, thwarted a proposal to issue a condemnation of Assad’s forces during a discussion of the issue by the Joint List. Thus, this stance can be interpreted not just as outrageous obtuseness to Assad’s atrocities, but also as a form of acquiescence.

Following public criticism over Hadash’s objection to a Joint List condemnation of the chemical attack, Hadash itself issued an announcement on its website, headlined, “Hadash Knesset members condemned the Idlib massacre in the [Knesset] plenary."

The content of the communique is grave and even more outrageous, with Joint List Chairman and Knesset member Ayman Odeh comparing from the Knesset podium the deadly gas attack in Idlib to what he termed the “murder” of Palestinian children by Israeli air force bombings of the Gaza Strip. Odeh was further quoted as saying, “My heart goes out to the children being murdered in Syria, as well as to the children of Yemen and Gaza,” without a single word condemning Assad, considered by most world leaders as a war criminal.

From the day he was elected to head the Joint List, Odeh launched a highly publicized campaign designed to bring Israeli Jews and Arabs closer together, claiming at every opportunity that he sought to show the Jews in Israel that the Arabs are an inseparable part of Israeli society. It seems that the words he uttered on the Knesset podium are not compatible with his previous declarations.

A Hadash activist told Al-Monitor this week on condition of anonymity that from the minute the Arab Knesset members were perceived by their communities as supportive of Assad, they — those at the grassroots level – have been targeted for vicious criticism. “There are some among us who have dedicated their lives to the faction and its political activity on the ground, and we have had to suffer curses. A woman I know told me ‘you should be ashamed,’ and I was.”

The divisions within Israeli-Arab families and among Israel’s Arab citizens engendered by the Syrian civil war are as old as the long war itself. There are those who claim that “dark forces” such as the Islamic State and other Islamist terror organizations are bent on tearing off parts of a united Syria, and Assad is forced to defend the future of the state. Others cannot forgive him for the measures he has taken to remain in power.

“I can tell you with full certainty from talking to people that even those who regard Assad as a legitimate leader are shocked by his actions,” said the Hadash activist. “One cannot murder civilians and explain that you are doing so for the good of the state. And so, Ayman Odeh, Mohammed Barakeh and the rest of the Knesset members of the Joint List are distancing themselves from us, not to mention the Jewish public, which is also attacking me. I have nothing to say in response except that I am ashamed.”

In response to a question by Al-Monitor about the comparison drawn by Odeh between Idlib and Gaza, the Hadash activist replied, “There’s no question that Israel killed civilians in Gaza, and Hadash condemned the attacks. But in order to denounce Assad for his criminal activity, one needn’t resort to comparisons. One can simply denounce, and that’s that, without hiding behind the crimes of others.” 

Found in: hadash party, syrian civil war, ayman odeh, bashar al-assad, knesset, israeli-arabs

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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