On July 22, the IDF beamed images around the world of more than 400 Syrian men, women and children – all affiliated with the White Helmets humanitarian group – travelling by bus through Israeli territory and out of danger to Jordan. From there, most were expected to be given asylum in Western countries.
Engineered by the US, UK, the EU and Canada, together with Jordan and Israel, the rescue represented a creative solution to a growing problem: displaced and desperate Syrians trapped by their own Government as the seven-year-old civil war moved to Syria’s southern-most frontier.
These Syrian citizens are the latest victims of President Bashar Al-Assad’s offensive in his country’s southern provinces. Who are they begging for assistance? Not their own government or their government’s benefactors, Russia or Iran, to stop the bombing. No, they are desperately seeking assistance from their sworn enemy: Israel.
And they are part of a larger cohort of Syrians also seeking the aid of the Jewish state.
How did this happen? And what has been Israel’s response?
How did it Happen?
In mid-July, there were an estimated 140,000 displaced Syrians in the country’s south along the borders with Israel and Jordan. Of these, it is thought that 15,000 had fled to the demilitarised zone along the Syria-Israel border. This zone has been under United Nations supervision since 1974. The remainder gathered along the adjacent Jordanian border and in surrounding villages.
These Syrians have been fleeing an escalation in violence in their country’s south-west, as Assad has retaken the rebel-held area where the uprising first began in 2011.
The local population has plenty to fear. Assad continues to receive the backing – diplomatic and military – of both Russia and Iran. His forces launched a violent assault to regain control of much of the Dara’a province, including a small enclave controlled by an ISIS affiliated group. Those ISIS fighters have been bombing nearby villages, endangering civilians.
Meanwhile, the IDF has increased its presence along the Syrian border and Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters there is evidence Iran-backed militias are trying to establish terrorist infrastructure in the area. Lieberman said: “The fact Iranian forces are present in Syria at all is unacceptable, and we will act against any Iranian consolidation in the area.” In short, the area remains highly unstable.
Syrians at the border
In the wake of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel and Syria signed a ceasefire. This agreement delineated the border and designated a portion of land between and along the frontier lines to be supervised by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. This document, the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement, clearly states, “this agreement is not a peace agreement.” Today, this agreement remains the status quo – meaning Israel and Syria are legally at war.
Reading Syrian media shows evidence of the ongoing animosity. For instance, the Syrian regime-linked SANA news agency recently reported the White Helmet evacuation as the “Israeli occupation army”, working on behalf of the “Israeli entity”, had evacuated White Helmets who are frequently seen “carrying machineguns and fighting alongside terrorist organisations.”
However, despite the official enemy status of the adjacent nation-states, Israeli media has quoted numerous Syrians explaining why they have been seeking the relative safety of the Syria-Israel border: “It’s safest [in Israel] … the regime and its allies can’t attack there with their planes”, said a Syrian mother of 11. “The civilians are asking Israel to protect them, or to annex the area remaining [under rebel control] to Israel,” said the head of a Syrian humanitarian organisation.
“Israel is a humanitarian state and much better than the Arab regimes,” said a resident of the Syrian Golan. “I’ll be the first to enter Israel if they open the border,” said a Syrian teacher who had fled with his pregnant wife and young son.
It is extraordinary, but unsurprising, that there is now a situation where many Syrians see Israel as their best hope for security and survival.
Since 2013, around 3,500 Syrian casualties have received medical treatment in Israel. A report by Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli researcher into the Syrian conflict, noted that Syrians preferred being treated in Israel. “Several residents of southern Syria pointed out to me that Jordanian hospitals treat Syrians much worse and are quick to amputate limbs, whereas Israeli doctors conduct multiple operations in an effort to save injured limbs.”
In 2016, Israel launched Operation Good Neighbour. The IDF-run program has led to 1,300 Syrian children seeing a doctor in Israel and then returning to Syria, having received not only care, but food and other essentials. Israel has also established field hospitals run by Western charities on the Syrian side of the border. These hospitals have treated around 6,000 Syrians.
The IDF has further transferred tonnes of humanitarian goods – fuel, tents, food, baby supplies and clothes – across the border to the Syrians in nearby areas. These goods are provided by both local charities and the Israeli Government. And Israeli families have been preparing care packages of toys and clothes for Syrian families.
But Israel has been clear it will not open its border to a refugee influx. Defence Minister Lieberman told Israeli radio on July 17: “I think that we have really done all that can be done. We are not prepared to accept even one refugee. That’s not our job. There are lots of Arab countries, rich countries.” This position was emphasised in the wake of the White Helmets evacuation.
Lieberman’s comments follow those of Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz, who on June 26, announced his country’s borders would remain closed to displaced Syrians, as they have been since mid-2014.
Jordan’s King Abdullah has echoed Lieberman’s calls in asking for more help from the international community to ease the pressure on those countries bordering Syria. In fact, Jordan accepted the fleeing White Helmets on the proviso they are moved to third countries within weeks.
Can Israel do more?
There is no easy answer and it is a question that divides Israelis.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi noted the growing crisis in southern Syria, but actually called on Jordan, rather than Israel, to do more.
An added degree of concern comes from the Druze population, which is resident in both Syria and Israel, and often has close cross-border family ties. Israeli Druze have implored the Netanyahu Government to do more to help their brethren over the border.
In November last year, the IDF vowed to prevent harm to a Syrian Druze community just across the border, which had close familial ties to nearby Israeli Druze.
Yet opening Israel’s borders to Syrian refugees is generally seen in Israel as posing an unreasonable security risk. Intelligence sources have indicated Iran may try to abuse Israel’s goodwill and encourage terrorists to infiltrate the country.
Even within the constraints of the no-refugee entry red line, prominent Israelis have called for more to be done to alleviate the situation on the border. It is a call motivated by both humanitarian and strategic concerns.
In 2015, Isaac Herzog, then-leader of the Labor Party in Israel, floated the idea of Israel taking in some Syrian refugees, but in recent years he seems to have retreated from that idea. Earlier this year, Herzog called for increased US intervention in Syria and stated: “We must not stand silent while international humanitarian laws formulated in response to the Holocaust are flouted.” Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau also compared the Syrian situation to the Holocaust.
Writing for the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, Eran Lerman and Nir Boms argued Israel could gain a strategic advantage by doing more to assist residents of southern Syria. They suggested Israel, which has had a mutually beneficial relationship with many of the rebel groups in southern Syria, could extend a hand in an innovative way.
“Taking this responsibility is not just a moral decree – it is also a political imperative which would have a considerable effect on a fluctuating Middle East, which is examining Israel’s course of action and slowly breaking through the glass ceilings of relationships. Israel must continue doing the right thing, even if such courses of action involve complex difficulties of implementation,” they write.
The Israeli Government has apparently heeded Lerman and Boms’ call and has shown its preparedness to undertake complex action to help its neighbours, such as in the White Helmet evacuation.
It is not just Israel that needs to act though. It seems the calls of prominent Israelis for more action to address the humanitarian needs of southern Syrians – Netanyahu and Herzog included – are beginning to be heard.
The US, UK, Canada and EU have acted to help a small number of civilians escape the dangerous border zone.
Russia, however, has a key role to play in ending the military conflict, improving local security and facilitating the passage of humanitarian aid. However, its assurances to date have been vague.
There is one thing Israel wants Russia to do: get the Iranians out, or, at the very least, away from the Golan border.
Netanyahu has engaged in shuttle diplomacy with Moscow to try to convince the Russians to evict the Iranians from Syria and restore stability in the south.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words have been positive and he reportedly agreed to keep Iranian troops and proxy groups 80 kilometres from Israel’s border, something he apparently discussed with US President Trump during the recent summit.
Following this meeting, Putin also called for the full implementation of the Yom Kippur War ceasefire, which demilitarises a zone along the Golan border, saying: “This will bring peace to the Golan Heights and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel and also to provide security for the State of Israel.”
Where to from here?
Before the recent White Helmets evacuation, former IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner suggested some creative solutions to help Israel maintain both its moral and strategic interests in the face of the Syrian situation.
Lerner canvassed the idea of Israel establishing a safe zone on the border for Syrian civilians with security assurances provided by Russia. Lerner also called for UN forces operating along the border to have their mandate extended to better assist in the current circumstances. They currently operate on a very limited mandate that does not extend beyond maintaining the 1974 ceasefire in the border zone between Israel and Syria.
Humanitarian corridors also need to be created to allow aid left languishing at the Jordanian border to reach those in need, he suggested.
As suggested by Lieberman, Arab neighbours need to step up. The UNHCR reported that Qatar provided US$10 million for Syrian families already in Lebanon and Jordan, but this does not assist those still in Syria.
The international community has recently begun to show some concern for this latest movement of desperate people in Syria’s southwest. Yet these people remain desperate enough that they are willing to seek salvation from Israel, a long-time enemy. This, along with statements coming from some Syrians, suggests attitudes to the Jewish state may have been shifted by Israel’s humanitarian efforts across the Golan border over the past few years.
Israel will need to continue to balance security concerns, current and historical strategic imperatives and the urgent humanitarian needs, as it has throughout the Syrian civil war. This means that creative solutions are needed – but not just from Israel. Israel appears to be doing all it can in a very difficult and complex situation. Any further relief will likely need the US, Russia and the Arab world to step up in new ways.