No, Israel hasn’t ‘won over’ the Syrians
Israel has been taking advantage of some Syrians' desperation to pursue its political goals. That's not humanitarianism.
By: Malak Chabkoun
Israel can bomb Iranian occupiers in Syria from here to eternity, but it will never be able to whitewash its occupation and aggression.
Some Syrians are welcoming these strikes or the occasional humanitarian aid from Israel, but this doesn’t mean that they have suddenly forgotten that Israel is systematically bombing and shooting protesting Palestinians and trapping millions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Nor does it mean that since they are opposing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a self-professed anti-Zionist, these Syrians are somehow supporting Israel.
In May of this year, a humanitarian aid director and a researcher claimed that southern Syria was the one place in the country that “worked”, giving credit solely to Israel’s so-called “Operation Good Neighbour” in southern Syria. They conveniently ignored that Deraa was the “cradle of the revolution” and that the liberation of these areas opened up space for a vibrant Syrian civil society and local governance to emerge.
But as yet another offensive of the Assad regime and its allies overtakes these very areas in the Deraa and Quneitra provinces, resulting in another wave of forced displacement, it has become clear that Israel’s Operation Good Neighbour has not had such a stabilising effect after all.
More importantly, normalising relations with the occupier Israel or carrying a torch for the Israeli army are not priorities of the Syrian people, no matter how many Syrians are forced to go to Israel for medical treatment or ask to be let in at the fence in the Golan Heights after fleeing the bombing. In reality there is no other option for them, as Jordan continues to turn them away.
Claiming that Israel has “won over” Syrians, as Israeli journalist Elizabeth Tsurkov does on a regular basis, is an inaccurate portrayal devoid of any nuance or context, and speaks over Syrian voices.
Formulating a judgement on the basis of Facebook comments or WhatsApp messaging groups (which Tsurkov has used as “supporting evidence”) can’t be presented as a sound study of Syrian attitudes towards Israel. These anecdotal pieces of “evidence” are just that: anecdotal and not a reflection of prevailing sentiment.
A true academic study would require a far more methodological approach to gauging Syrian attitudes towards Israel, one that would not exploit a war-ravaged population’s desperation and expressions of frustration on social media to claim that “Israel won over the Syrian people”.
As Syrian Palestinian researcher and activist Razan Ghazzawi said to me in a personal exchange, it is quite inaccurate to equate the desperate and besieged Syrians accepting aid or medical treatment from Israel with a broader Syrian desire to normalise relations with Israel.
When Syrian “opposition members” such as Abdel Jalil al-Saeed and Kamal Labwani were discovered visiting Israel, they were blasted by Syrian activists and ordinary citizens alike, a clear indication that accepting aid is one thing, and trying to normalise an occupier as an ally is another.
Exploiting Syrians to polish Israel’s image
Statements such as, “Israel is more merciful than Assad”, are not new in Syrian circles. That such statements are made does not diminish Israel’s crimes in Syrians’ eyes, nor does it mean Syrians see Israel as an ally or friend.
These are expressions of frustration and despair from people who have been pushed to the brink by the merciless regime that has ruled over them for decades and is now bombing them indiscriminately. In conversations with me, a number of Syrian activists and researchers have put such public declarations in context.
Osama al-Koshak, a Syrian activist, puts it this way, “Such expressions are simultaneously a condemnation of Israel and the criminal Arab regimes, and in fact, establish Israel as the point of reference for absolute evil, meaning it cannot be considered a basis of support.” In fact, as he points out, when Syrians make such a comparison, they are comparing between bad and worse, not between good and bad.
According to Syrian researcher Ahmad Abazeid, Syrians prioritising the Assad regime, Iran and Russia as their main enemies at this time cannot be equated with or interpreted as a favourable view of Israel and its occupation of the Golan Heights and Palestine.
Omar al-Hariri, an activist with the Deraa Martyrs’ Documentation Center, also adds that Israel has exploited the regime’s crimes to make itself look good in poverty-ridden areas, building hospitals and funding Free Syrian Army units to try to win support among people who have no access to other resources for their livelihood.
As Syrian opposition judge and activist Ismat Absi says, in the geopolitical context, the Syrian people have consistently been the last factor considered (if at all) when political decisions were made on Syria. That is why it is important to note that Israel’s symbolic overtures to Syrians via aid and medical assistance are not for the sake of the revolution or because of Israel’s dedication to humanity.
“It does not make sense that you save the life of a Syrian child or woman and then turn around and destroy the life of a child or woman in Gaza, bombing children and women in Gaza but saving them in Syria, that’s not humanitarian”, said Absi.
Iran, Russia, Israel and the geopolitical reality
No, the reality of Israel’s “intervention” isn’t based on humanitarian considerations. One, the occupier Israel is thinking ahead of ways to maintain control over the occupied Golan Heights and two, none of the key actors in Syria are looking for a showdown with Israel, and the opposite is true as well.
During the latest offensive on Deraa province, Israel has been far clearer about where it stands on the Syrian conflict.
It has struck an agreement with Russia to support the operation so long as the regime’s Iranian allies keep their distance from the territories it occupies. Israeli analysts have also recently started to write about what many of us have known for a while now – that Israel wants al-Assad to stay in power because he can guarantee the security of its northern frontier.
The Israeli government go no further than itself and its Jewish citizens. Whatever aid Israel has provided to Syrians does not erase its crimes and cannot be used to humanise its occupation.
The Israeli government cares as much about Syrians as it does about Palestinians (in other words, not at all). “Operation Good Neighbour” is a reflection of one of its many political machinations, not a humanitarian gesture.