Lebanese mourners hold portraits of Lebanese militant Samir Kantar during his funeral procession.
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Faisal al-Qassem, one of the Arab world’s most popular journalists, authored a post on his Facebook page that generated tens of thousands of likes and shares. Al-Qassem, a Syrian Druse, juxtaposed two images – one of Samir Kuntar and another of a Syrian prisoner who was subject to starvation while in captivity.
“This is how Kuntar left Israeli jail – with a pot belly and a doctorate, and this is how Syrians leave prisons run by the Assad family,” the journalist wrote.
In recent years, as the Syrian civil war has grown progressively more gruesome, al-Qassem has written similar posts and columns for well-known Arab newspapers. He has made comparisons between the so-called “patriotic” yet murderous Arab regimes and the so-called “treacherous” Arab governments that look out for their citizens. At times, he has also noted the relatively merciful manner in which Israel treats the Palestinians and contrasted it with the way in which Arab regimes, chief among them the Assad government, has butchered its subjects.
Al-Qassem’s sentiments are shared by many opponents of the Assad regime in Syria. They are happy about the Kuntar assassination, which foreign media reports attribute to Israel’s handiwork, and they are grateful to Israel since Kuntar was perceived as one of the symbols and leaders of the invasion of Syria by a wave of Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias.
The killing of Kuntar helped Assad opponents be rid of one of the most important symbols of the alliance that is oppressing them. This was best expressed by a Syrian activist who is affiliated with the southern front of the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of moderate rebels, who tweeted: “Thank you to the Israeli heroes who killed one of the most wicked terrorists, the murderer of children and babies. Samir Kuntar, rot in hell.”
Before the start of the current uprising, Syrian propaganda made no room for dissenting voices. It praised the “heroism” of Hezbollah and it justified the government’s oppressive policies by citing “the resistance” to Zionism and support for the Palestinians. During peacetime, the regime allocated 12 percent of its budget to the military, once again brandishing the threat posed by the “Zionist entity” as its pretext.
With the start of the uprising, the weapons that were earmarked for future conflict with Israel were now being turned against the civilians. Hezbollah, which enjoyed widespread support before the uprising, enlisted in the cause to preserve Assad’s rule and dispatched thousands of fighters to Syria due to the lack of manpower in the Syrian military. The Lebanese Shi’ite group took an active part in the cruel repression in an attempt to crush the insurgency.
These developments changed many people’s thinking in Syria. Hezbollah flags were torched in public demonstrations, and the Free Syrian Army staged a procession in southern Syria under the banner: “Death to Iran.”
While Iran and Hezbollah have seen their image take a hit, the negative perception of Israel has started to erode. There are a number of factors that have contributed to this phenomenon. First, having shared enemies in the form of Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran contributed to the sense – albeit somewhat far-fetched – that these players share the same fate as Israel.
Secondly, the cruelty of the Assad regime has led many Syrians to view Israel’s conduct in the Palestinian territories as less severe. There is also the matter of the limited humanitarian aid which Israel has given to wounded Syrians who have received treatment in Israeli hospitals in the north. This, too, has contributed to Israel’s positive image.
The shift in attitude displayed by al-Qassem and the opponents of the Syrian regime and the ever-improving image of Israel and the moderate Arab governments are hallmarks of the current discourse in contemporary Arab societies throughout the Middle East. The Arab revolutions have led to greater suffering and chaos throughout the region, yet the price paid by civilians has led many to re-evaluate Israel in a more positive, nuanced context. The writer is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking.
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