Israel Pulse

Israel helps White Helmets, but rejects Syrian refugees

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Article Summary
The evacuation of White Helmets members and their families from Syria was an admirable gesture by Israel, but hardly enough to compensate for the expulsion of Syrians from the Golan Heights after the 1967 war.

Let's start with the glass half full. In a clandestine July 22 operation, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) evacuated several hundred activists from the White Helmets, the Syrian humanitarian civil defense group, and their family members, and removed them from the fighting in southern Syria, through Israel, to Jordan. From there, they will continue on, to be settled in the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Canada. Even the European Union, which does not often pamper Israel with compliments, issued a statement recognizing the efforts by Israel and others to bring the activists to safety. At the end of June, the IDF had provided tents, food, medical equipment, shoes and clothing for Syrians who had escaped to a tent encampment on the Golan.

As for the half-empty glass, after the rescue, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement stressing that he had approved the activists’ transit through Israeli territory to other countries. In other words, none were allowed to remain on its territory. Israel only served as a conduit. The day after getting the aid to the displaced Syrians on the Golan, the IDF made clear that Israel would not allow in Syrians. In other words, residents of Israel’s settlements on the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, will soon be watching the slaughter of Syrians across the border by Syrian government forces.

As the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and their allied militias advance toward the Golan, based on new understandings reached with Russia, they will be looking first for collaborators with Israel. According to a June 18 Wall Street Journal report, for years, Israel has been regularly funneling cash to anti-government rebels in the border area to create and maintain a buffer zone populated by friendly forces. Syrian fighters told the paper that the IDF funds their wages and the purchase of weapons and ammunition. While serving as defense minister (2015), Moshe Ya'alon confirmed that in return for Israeli humanitarian aid, the rebels kept radical anti-Israel militias like Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra away from the border.

Also inside the half-empty glass are tens of thousands of Syrian refugees for whom Israel has been responsible for more than 50 years but continues to ignore. On the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, some 501,000 people were living in the Golan, 15,000 of them Palestinian refugees who had fled there following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. According to the accepted Israeli narrative, residents of the Golan fled or were ordered by the Syrian army to vacate their homes when the fighting broke out. In-depth reportage by Haaretz in July 2010, however, told a very different story. A few days after the fighting ended, Gen. (res.) Elad Peled, who commanded the IDF battalion that conquered the Golan, said, “We received an order to start destroying villages.” Indeed, 153 villages and 112 farms were wiped off the face of the earth.

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Amnon Asaf, a resident of the northern Israeli kibbutz of Maayan Baruch, testified that in the initial days after the fighting, he and a friend who traveled to the Golan saw a large group of Syrians standing in front of tables behind which soldiers were sitting. “We stopped and asked a soldier what they were doing. He answered they were doing pre-expulsion registration,” Assaf recounted.

Emanuel “Manu” Shaked, appointed commander of the Golan Heights about a month and a half after the fighting, told the reporter Shai Fogelman that two months after the war, he and his friends rounded up a group of Syrian farmers tilling their land. “We let them take belongings that they could carry in rucksacks, and sometimes we also helped them with trucks,” Shaked said. “In Quneitra we handed them over to the Red Cross and the UN, who took care of transferring them to the Syrian side of the border.” Shaked recalled that one elderly farmer said he would remain in his village even at the cost to his life. “I did not intervene,” he remarked. “Today it may not be so pleasant to hear all this, but that’s what I remember.”

Red Cross officials claim that all those transferred to the part of the Golan that remained under Syrian control after the war were required to sign a document stating that they were moving of their own volition. The minutes of an Oct. 3 meeting in the defense minister’s office uses the word “expulsion”: “The expulsion will be carried out on the basis of the directive to prevent infiltration.” By the end of 1967, fewer than 7,000 Syrians were left on the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan. Israel used the lands of the razed villages and farms to build 33 settlements in which more than 20,000 Jewish settlers now live.

Over the years, Israel has sought to solidify its control of the Golan Heights and to indirectly legitimize the Syrians’ expulsion and settlement on their lands. In 1981, the Knesset adopted the Golan Heights Law, applying Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration on the area. The UN Security Council, however, determined that Israel's decision lacked any legal validity. To date, not a single state has recognized Israel's annexation of the Golan.

On July 17, a US congressional subcommittee discussed a proposal on recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Most experts present rejected the proposal. Still, it was mentioned during the discussion that President Donald Trump was encouraged by the enthusiasm expressed following his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (Of note, the decision does not recognize Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem.)

Russia President Vladimir Putin, after meeting with Trump in Helsinki on July 16, said, “The situation on the Golan Heights must be restored to what it was after the 1974 agreement, which set the terms for the disengagement of forces between Israel and Syria.” Netanyahu was quick to praise the “clear position expressed by President Putin regarding the need to uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement” and even threatened that Israel would respond firmly to every attempt to violate its terms. The 1974 agreement left Israel in control of the Golan lands it captured in 1967 and Syria in control of the remainder, which is currently controlled by rebels.

On this issue, too, the prime minister prefers to ignore the half-empty glass. The agreement he holds so dear includes the following key words: “This agreement is not a peace agreement. It is a step toward a just and durable peace on the basis of Security Council Resolution 338 dated October 22, 1973.” The resolution was a reiteration of Resolution 242 (November 1967), which calls for the evacuation of Israeli armed forces from territories captured during the "recent conflict," that is, the 1967 war. To repeat, evacuation is called for, not rescuing activists and providing humanitarian aid, though admirable. Taking in refugees from Syria, including those who have stood by Israel's side in recent years, is the very least the nation-state of a persecuted people owes itself.

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Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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