Palestinians and Syria

We recognize that Palestinians are split over the civil war in Syria.

April 15, 2018 20:39
3 minute read.
Palestinian protesters carry tires to burn them during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza bo

Palestinian protesters carry tires to burn them during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip April 5, 2018. . (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)


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The moral argument for the combined American, British and French attack on Syria is clear. Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against civilians, including little children. He must be persuaded to stop.

By coordinating the attack, Western nations conveyed that they would not stand by while Assad used chemicals weapons against civilians.

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This was not an action designed to weaken or topple the regime. No one seriously thinks that rebel coalitions such as the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam, or Al-Nusra Front, offer a more democratic or more moderate option to the murderous Assad.

Still, his flagrant use of chemical weapons in Douma at a time when Jaysh al-Islam was surrounded and on the verge of surrender, was an act of depravity, not desperation. The US, French and British response was fitting and will hopefully serve as a deterrent.

But a simple moral argument is not clear to everyone. MK Ayman Odeh, leader of Hadash, the Arab-Jewish communist party of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties with 13 Knesset seats, sharply criticized the US-led attack on Assad’s chemical weapons plants. “The American, British and French leadership and their partners from the Gulf States and foremost Saudi Arabia... are weaker than the will of the Syrian people,” Odeh wrote on Facebook. “I am with Syria against the American attack.”

The Hadash Party condemned the attack by saying the US has a history of “aggression and bullying in the region, with the excuse of [destroying] weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false.”

We recognize that Palestinians are split over the civil war in Syria. Nominally secular Palestinians like Odeh view Assad’s Syria as the last bastion of a secular Arab nationalism. Many Palestinian Christians see Assad and his Alawite regime as a bulwark against Sunni Islamist extremism that has zero tolerance for diverse religious or ethnic groups in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Hamas – which was headquartered in Damascus when the civil war began and had been aligned with Iran – took the side of the Sunni rebels, many of whom are inspired by the same ideology as Hamas. Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, a Qatari-based cleric and patron of Hamas has issued fatwas urging Muslims to join the armed uprising against Assad.

What is striking about the Palestinian split over Syria, however, is the paucity of debate. One is forced to choose between bad and worse. Odeh seems compelled to take the side of a ruthless, autocratic regime that does not hesitate to deploy chemical weapons, starve entire populations and use barrel bombs indiscriminately against civilians. He justified this, apparently, as part of a larger battle against so-called Western – particularly American – imperialism. Men like Odeh are willing to condemn coalition air strikes over Syria (even if they are not aimed at toppling the regime), but are willing to ignore Russia’s bombing campaign against Syrian civilians.

Unfortunately, the same paucity of thinking characterizes domestic Palestinian politics. The vast majority of Palestinians support either the extremist Islamist Hamas hat has utterly failed to govern the Gaza Strip since its violent takeover in 2007, or Fatah, a kleptocratic regime that stifles basic human rights.

And in Israel, Arab citizens consistently vote for politicians with extreme views such as Odeh or Haneen Zoabi. A survey by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted in mid-March found that if parliamentary elections were held with the participation of all factions, 31% would vote for Hamas, 36% would vote for Fatah and 9% would vote for all other third parties combined.

Calls to ban Odeh from the Knesset for his comments on Assad are preposterous. Israel’s democracy protects free speech. However, it is unfortunate that in the name of solidarity with anti-American forces, Odeh feels compelled to defend a murderous war criminal. What’s more troubling is that the leader of Israel’s third-largest list in the Knesset, who ostensibly represents the interests of Israel’s Arab population, is unable to articulate a more nuanced position – whether it be on the Syrian civil war or striking a modus vivendi for peaceful coexistence with the Jewish state.

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