A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family tent at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece (REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis.
(photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
After some seven years of carefully avoiding being dragged into the Syrian civil war, Israel is now facing a unique moral, diplomatic and military challenge.
As the army of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, backed by Iranian Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah, is bombarding the areas around Deraa and Quneitra in an attempt at retaking them from rebel forces, there is an intensifying internal refugee crisis. Syrian homeless have gathered close to the border with Israel. As their numbers grow, there are increased calls for Israel to allow some of the refugees into the country.
Whenever Israelis think of the refugee issue, they are reminded, with pride, of how Menachem Begin offered a home to some 300 Vietnamese “Boat People” in the late 1970s.
As Israelis we also recall our people’s experience during and immediately following the Holocaust, when few countries offered refuge to the Jews and the British mandate turned away or incarcerated survivors who struggled to reach a safe haven on these shores.
The issue obviously is an emotional one – but allowing emotions to dictate policy is dangerous.
It should be emphasized and praised that Israel, far from ignoring the needs of the Syrian refugees, has been helping them for several years now. Since 2013, nearly 5,000 Syrian patients have received medical treatment – at Israeli taxpayers’ expense – in Israeli hospitals and field hospitals. Indeed, hospitals in the North – facing a crisis in finances, space and resources – continue to offer the best care possible to the Syrians they treat.
On June 30, six more Syrian patients, including four children, were transferred for care to Israeli hospitals, several suffering from severe wounds including head wounds and stomach injuries sustained in the intensive shelling.
Israel also continues to provide aid and assistance to the Syrians just over the border, whether living in villages or makeshift camps.
Indeed, as The Jerusalem Post
’s military affairs reporter Anna Ahronheim noted, this humanitarian aid, in recent days alone, has consisted of providing some 300 tents for shelter; 13 tons of food; 15 tons of baby food; three palettes of medical equipment and medicines; and 30 tons of clothing and footwear. The aid was transferred by the IDF to four different locations across the border in a special operation.
While providing such assistance, Israel and the IDF have so far done everything possible to prevent a massive influx of Syrian refugees – and there seems little likelihood that this policy will be changed.
Israel has stated in the past that it would protect the Druse population in the Syrian villages close to the border, many of whom have close family ties with Druse living on the Israeli Golan Heights. But the refugees now gathering close to the border are Sunni Muslims, not Druse.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Regarding southern Syria, we will continue to defend our borders. We will extend humanitarian assistance to the extent of our abilities. We will not allow entry [of refugees] into our territory and we will demand that the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement with the Syrian army be strictly upheld.”
While this policy makes sense, Israel will have to carefully gauge the situation as it develops. As Israelis, as Jews and as human beings, we have a moral obligation to help. The question of allowing refugees into the country is not a simple matter; it needs to be considered with great care and sensitivity.
At the same time though, we cannot forget that the Syrian civil war is not a problem for Israel to solve. Both the US and Russia need to play a central role in dealing with the challenges they themselves have helped create: the US by leaving a vacuum and Russia by filling it. It is ultimately their responsibility to ensure that the areas where the refugees have gathered are safe from shelling and to help them rebuild their homes inside Syria. Israel’s responsibility is to be moral and ethical but also not to be reckless.
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