Israel and its Arab allies

May 1, 2015 | Sharyn Mittelman

Israel and its Arab allies

As the Middle East erupts in sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia powers and terrorist groups threaten state borders and security, increasingly Israel’s Arab neighbours – and especially the younger generation – appear to be realising that Israel is not the biggest threat in the region and that it could even be seen as an ally.

For example, Arab youth have been using social media to send messages of peace to Israel.  Shlomi Eldar writes in Al Monitor:

“It all began as a personal project by a young Israeli Arab who lives in northern Israel. He wanted to use social networking to convince other Israeli Arabs that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are not some ‘army of evil’ and that its soldiers are not as bloodthirsty as they tend to be portrayed in Arab propaganda films. He soon learned, however, that in the digital age, there is no end to surprises. Instead of messages and responses from the Israeli Arab audience he was targeting, he began receiving messages of peace and love from young Arab men and women from across the Arab world.”

Similarly last year there was a social media campaign for people to send in pictures of their support for Israel with their passports, organised by Stand with Us.  They received 2500 submissions from over 140 countries including those in the Middle East.

Moreover, a recent poll of Arab youth, the “ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey” found that only 23 percent of respondents cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the region’s main obstacle facing the Middle East, coming fourth after ISIS (37 percent), terrorism (32 percent) and unemployment (29 percent). The survey polled 3,500 Arabs aged 18 to 24 from 16 Arab countries in face-to-face interviews.

Evelyn Gordon, discussing the survey in Commentary and the declining percentage of respondents who cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main regional obstacle, writes:

“A comparison to previous surveys shows that this figure has been declining slowly but steadily for the past few years: In 2012, for instance, it was 27 percent, a statistically significant difference given the poll’s margin of error (1.65 percent)…

The poll also highlights another encouraging fact: The issues young Arabs do see as their top concerns – ISIS, terrorism, and unemployment – are all issues on which cooperation with Israel could be beneficial, and in some cases, it’s already taking place. For instance, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation on counterterrorism is closer than it’s been in years – not only against Hamas, but also against the ISIS branch in Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Israel and Jordan cooperate closely on counterterrorism as well, and it’s a safe bet that quiet cooperation is also occurring with certain other Arab states that officially have no relations with Israel.”

One could also add to this list the reportedly covert cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia regarding their shared concerns over Iran’s nuclear program including the terms of the P5+1 “framework” announced in April.

True, not everyone is happy about Israel’s improved regional standing, take for example the April 12 edition of the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour, in which columnist Maher Abu Tair bemoans Jordan’s growing relationship with Israel. According to MEMRI, Tair writes:

“The naked truth is that Jordan no longer has any Arab allies, and today its only ally against the entire Arab east is Israel. If the Arabs had wanted a strong Jordan that did not throw itself at Israel, they would not have abandoned it economically and besieged it politically to the point that its foreign policy became fickle. [Nowadays] we go to bed supporting Tehran and wake up opposing it in Yemen.”

Another apparent regional friend of Israel is the moderate Syrian opposition group “the Free Syrian Army” (FSA). Israel has never had diplomatic relations with Syria, however, the FSA has reached out to Israel seeking its support against the Assad regime. Last week the FSA sent a letter to Israel congratulating it on its 67th Independence day. The letter was from FSA’s foreign affairs spokesperson Mousa Ahmed Nabhan to Druse activist Mendi Safadi who in the past served as a parliamentary assistant to Likud’s MK Ayoub Kara. The letter stated:

“We congratulate the powerful state of Israel and its people on its anniversary of independence, and we hope that next year we can participate in the joy of the grand occasion in Israel’s embassy in Damascus.”

Nabhan said he was thankful for the Israeli leadership’s “esteemed humanitarian positions overseeing towards the Syrian revolution and its people,” adding that his movement would not forget any nation that stood by its side. He added that the “overwhelming majority of the Syrian people” are moderate and have been “looking forward for a long time to establish best special relations at all levels with the Israeli neighbors.” Nabhan concluded, “With best wishes to the leadership of the State of Israel and its people for health, happiness, progress and success.”

Nabhan also sent Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a congratulatory letter after his election win, in which he expressed his hope that Israel would, “continue to provide the necessary support to the Syrian people, which are fond of you and looking to build the best of relations on all levels.”

While Israel officially said that it would stay out of the Syrian conflict aside from ensuring its own defence, it is well known that Israel provides humanitarian and medical assistance to injured Syrians on its border (see link), which is implied in the letter.

In addition, the FSA surely appreciates that Israel has fired on Hezbollah targets in Syria – an enemy of the Syrian opposition groups given that Hezbollah, backed by Iran, is supporting the Assad regime. Israel reportedly attacked Hezbollah as recently as Sunday, as Haaretz reported:

“Israel is reported to have struck missile batteries belonging to Hezbollah and the Syrian army in the Qalamoun area, near the Syria-Lebanon border, an unconfirmed Al Jazeera report said early on Monday. The report said there were several casualties.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit would not confirm or deny, saying they do not comment on foreign reports. This is the third attack in Syria in the past three days that was attributed to Israel. But unlike the two other strikes, it seems that this report is less credible.
The attack comes hours after an Israeli Air Force aircraft struck a militant cell that was trying to place an explosive device on Israel’s border with Syria…
Israeli Air Force reportedly attacked Syrian army bases where Hezbollah stored long-range missiles late Friday night.
The airstrikes reportedly targeted the bases of the 155th and 65th strategic missile brigades, stationed in Qalamoun, near the Syria-Lebanon border…
According to an Al Arabiya report, Friday night’s strikes were preceded by another attack on Wednesday, targeting a Hezbollah convoy carrying weapons. According to the report, at least one person was killed in that attack…”

Unfortunately the FSA, once the leading opposition force in Syria, has lost ground as other rebel groups hostile to the West and linked to ISIS and al Qaeda have taken large swathes of Syria’s territory previously captured by the FSA.

The FSA still controls parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, as well as areas in northern Syria, although many analysts believe the group may be imploding under pressure from the Assad regime and Islamist terrorist groups. The failure of the international community to support the FSA in the early days of the Syrian civil war appears to be a tragic lost opportunity. As a result, international support for the Syrian rebels has decreased as the international community considers a series of bad options for Syria’s future – the brutal Assad regime, or ISIS/ al Qaeda backed terrorists. In this choice between bad options, as a Western coalition battles ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the West is likely to favour Assad.

The US is arming some “moderate” Syrian rebel groups and plans to train 5,000 moderate Syrian fighters, but without a significant financial investment from the West these “moderate” fighters may not stand a chance.

Explaining the demise of the FSA, international affairs writer for the International Business Times Erin Banco writes:

“The emergence of the better-armed, ruthless Islamic State group on the battlefield in Syria last year marked the beginning of the end for the opposition groups the U.S. dubbed the ‘moderate rebels.’ Now, the men and women who sparked the revolution by demonstrating in the streets of Dara’a in March 2011 have fled, and the groups of men who took up what arms they could find to fight Assad’s military and eventually became the FSA have dissipated…
The moderate movement in Syria could be considered officially dead as of last week, when the last U.S.-backed rebel faction, Harakat Hazzm, disbanded, its members joining extremist groups such as the Nusra Front, the al Qaeda offshoot in the country…

The Nusra Front, aka Jabhat al-Nusra, has picked up thousands of men who once fought under the umbrella of the FSA during the past three years. It offers its soldiers hundreds of dollars a month in salary and food installments. The soldiers in the FSA did not receive any monthly stipend. When extremist groups such as the Nusra Front gained ground in Syria and received millions of dollars in cash and weapons from wealthy businessmen in the Gulf states and Libya, the moderate rebels ‘had no other choice,’ Jarrah said. ‘They feel like they are cheated, so they join ISIS.’ According to Jarrah: ‘This is the reason why the FSA was never successful. The countries that promised weapons haven’t provided them. They totally overexaggerated support.”’

Regarding the US support, Bowen writes:

“As American focus shifted to fighting the Islamic State group rather than the regime, the U.S. began vetting and arming some opposition groups through the CIA in 2013, saying it supplied them with anti-tank weapons and ammunition — but those groups said it was not enough to defeat the extremist group. Leaders of the FSA have said that with the equipment and money they have now they simply cannot fight the militant group, which is purportedly generating about $2 million in revenue a day. Fighters in Harakat Hazzm, who got U.S. weapons, told International Business Times in interviews that Washington set them up for failure…
Now, amid the dissolution of the secular opposition, the U.S. is changing tack. The Defense Department is taking over from the CIA the task of propping up the rebels in Syria. It will be in charge of arming and training them at military bases in Jordan. In January, it confirmed it would send 400 U.S. military trainers and hundreds of other personnel to the Middle East to train Syrian rebels. The program, calling for the training of 5,000 rebels, will focus on defeating Assad’s forces near Damascus. It is still unclear which rebel groups will receive U.S. weapons and training.

Analysts have said any rebel group in the south of Syria that receives U.S. weapons will have a greater chance of succeeding, because it will not have to fight on multiple fronts. It will have to face Assad’s forces only, because the Islamic State group has yet to infiltrate the southern part of the country, where Damascus is located.”

The West’s failure to adequately support the FSA and other moderate rebel fighters in Syria appears to have been a tragic mistake that, by omission, has enabled terrorist groups hostile to the West to gain ground. There may still be time to correct this wrong with significant investment but the clock is ticking.

Meanwhile, we are also witnessing in recent years a push by a few courageous leaders from within Palestinian society to increase Holocaust education, which has largely been absent from the Palestinian education system, and in a Middle East, which is notoriously rife with Holocaust denial.

Discussing this issue last month in an article in the Jerusalem Post was Ahmed Maswahed, a law student at a Palestinian university who lives in east Jerusalem. He writes:

“At School I hadn’t read a single line about the Holocaust. In the 12th grade there were lessons about World War II, but still no mention of the Holocaust. In fact, there is no “Holocaust” in Palestinian history books. I’m currently a law student at a Palestinian university, and still, the word “Holocaust” isn’t mentioned anywhere…
Even though my schools and university didn’t teach me about the Holocaust, I read about it on the Internet, and checked some books. But I must admit that what I read wasn’t good enough to give me a clear image.”

However, Maswahed believes that Holocaust education is particularly important for peace building because it can create empathy between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. He notes:

“Holocaust education isn’t only a Jewish issue, it is an issue for humanity. It is being taught at most of the schools and universities in the world, but not in the place where it should be taught first. Holocaust education is the single best way to increase empathy between Palestinians and Israelis. I couldn’t prevent myself from shedding tears for the martyrs of all humanity, the Holocaust martyrs, and those tears reminded me of the ones I shed over the civilian martyrs in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Vietnam, Japan, and all the rest of the world.
… To solve this problem we need to create Holocaust storytelling and educational circles for Palestinians every year and work together in order to create online Holocaust education courses as a first step to give Palestinians a wider view of the Holocaust and help them spread that knowledge. Knowledge is empathy!”

At the forefront of the campaign to include Holocaust education in the Palestinian territories is Professor Mohammed Dajani, but it has often come at great personal cost. The Professor resigned under pressure from Al-Quds University last May after taking 30 Palestinian students to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. In January, Dajani’s car was torched outside his home in east Jerusalem.

Explaining his views on the importance of Holocaust education, Dajani wrote in an article in the New York Times, co-written with Robert Satloff in May 2011, that it was “essential” for Palestinian students to study the genocide so that they would be “armed with knowledge to reject the comparison” between the Holocaust and the Nakba because “if it were broadly avoided, peace would be even more attainable than it is today.”

Dajani and others like him are truly the pioneers of peace, and we can only hope that there can be more courageous leaders like him in the years to come.

Sharyn Mittelman





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