Israel’s Golan policy and Syria
How good intentions became a misguided policy
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
[DRAFT VERSION, NOT FOR ATTRIBUTION WITHOUT PERMISSION]
‘Druze protesters last night attacked an Israel Defense Forces ambulance carrying Syrian members of armed militias who were wounded in the civil war,” explained the headline of an Israeli newspaper. The IDF soldiers were not injured, but one of the Syrian fighters was killed by the protesters who accused him of being a member of one of the Islamist militias who have killed more than 1,500 Druze in the last years of the Syrian civil war.
This is a contentious issue that exploded over the last week as Druze became increasingly concerned over the fate of their co-religiosts in Syria. Druze there have been caught between the Assad regime and the Sunni-based rebellion. Assad and his Hezbollah allies have portrayed themselves as champions of various minorities in Syria, such as Alawites, Druze and Kurds, in the fight against the rebellion which has become more religiously sectarian. The Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra front, which under normal circumstance would be the most extreme is today considered “moderate” in the Syria conflict, compared to Islamic State, which last week was reportedly busy crucifying children who ate food during Ramadan. Druze have had to make the embrace of the lesser of two evils, accepting Assad as a benefactor.
Israel has also made a similar devil’s embrace, working with the “moderate” Syrian rebels who have captured areas next to Israel’s Golan border. In December of 2014 it was reported that Defense Minister Ya’alon “said the army was sending humanitarian aid…to Syrian villages…providing the assistance on condition that the more moderate militias in the border area keep radical militias away from the Israeli border.”
HOW DID Israel become involved in this ill-conceived mess that has become tainted by mission creep? The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 but it was not until November 2012 that Israel found itself having to retaliate after mortars were fired into the Golan from the war. The Syrian rebels accused Israel of acting to help Bashar Assad. Netanyahu toured the area, “following the situation closely. We will not allow our borders to be breached or our citizens to live under fire. We will respond accordingly,” the Prime Minister said. Since then a trickle of fire has come over from Syria; in March 20103 Israel retaliated after rocket fire, in September 2014 Israel hit a Syrian military post, in January 2015 Israel hit a Syrian military position and then killed Imad Mughniyeh’s son and in response Hezbollah struck an IDF vehicle.
Since February 21, 2013 when Shlomi Eldar penned an article at Al-Monitor, there has been a consistent lobby for Israel to build a “field hospital” for Syrians. “a Syrian rebel wounded in battle who receives medical treatment in Israel will return home to Damascus or Aleppo, to Homs or to Dara’a, and tell his family and friends that the Jews living beyond the Golan Heights, which were once in Syrian hands, don’t really have horns after all,” wrote Eldar. So the concept was soft-hasbara, give Syrians medical aid and they will like Israel.
So Israel built a field hospital. According to reports, by January 2014 around 500 Syrians had been treated, 40 percent in the field, and others at Ziv Medical Center in Safed. In February 2014 Netanyahu took press on a tour. Netanyahu claimed that the wounded were victims of Iranian arms being transferred to Syria. “This place separates the good in the world from the evil in the world.” Iranian media responded by accusing Israel of giving medical aid to “terrorists.”
Beginning in late 2014 a new element emerged. Druze in Syria were suffering casualties from the rebel forces fighting Assad. Since Druze were perceived as being allies of the regime the rebels and also al-Qaeda extremists began targeting them, killing a reported 1,500. In return the Druze community in the Golan and Israel began pressuring Israel to something. A report in December 2014 noted “According to Israel’s health ministry, so far some 1,000 Syrians have been treated in four Israeli hospitals. Many of the wounded are civilians, and some are members of the secular Free Syrian Army rebel group.” The UN observer force UNDOF reported that it had seen contact between armed members of the Syrian rebels, transferring their wounded fighters, to Israel. This enraged the Druze and one group of young activists released a statement: “As we warned in the past, today it has become a fact that Israel supports all factions fighting the Syrian regime, and supplies them with weapons, and takes in the wounded of all faction, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh,”
Israel ignored the seething anger and rumor-mongering among the Golan Druze. But in June it became impossible to ignore. Druze appealed directly to President Rivlin, the IDF chief of staff Eizenkot and others to help their brethren. Israel said it would not intervene.
But the veneer that Israel was aiding only civilians suddenly evaporated. In December of 2014 Vice revealed the depth of Israel’s involvement inside the Syrian Golan. Foreign Policy reported on June 11 that “Israel is tending to wounded Syrian rebels.” The report claimed “In the past three months, battle-hardened Syrian rebels have transported scores of wounded Syrians across a cease-fire line that has separated Israel from Syria since 1974, according to a 15-page report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the work of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Once in Israel, they receive medical treatment in a field clinic before being sent back to Syria, where, presumably, some will return to carry on the fight.”
Israel didn’t deny the claim but argued, according to Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the IDF, that more than 1,000 Syrians had been treated in the past 14 months. “We give medical aid to people who are in dire need,” he told Foreign Policy; “We don’t do any vetting or check where they are from or which group they are fighting for, or whether they are civilians.” When a Channel 2 reporter interviewed the obviously military age men being treated on June 20, the supposed “non-vetting” claim seemed preposterous. “He is only 18 but has already killed people,” explained the reporter. “I will go directly back and get a gun,” one young man told the reporters. “I want to fight,” they said. Asked if they would kill Druze they were more cagy in their answers.
In the north Druze communities were angered, not only due to this report, but also reports from Syria that Israel was aiding Nusra front and others who kill their people. On June 22 an ambulance driving through Herfeish was stoned. Another ambulance was stopped in the Golan, the male patients taken out and one of them lynched. The media reported the Druze had killed a “militant.”
Since then not one in the Israeli government has done anything but condemn the Druze for killing the man. It is seen as a “law and order” issue and media have been fed stories that Druze anger is based on “rumors and conspiracy theories” fed by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. But the statement by Lerner that Israel “does not do any vetting” of the Syrians coming into Israeli hospitals, to sit in rooms next to Israeli civilians, is alarming. What if the Syrians coming over are dangerous criminals, or murderers. If they told Channel 2 proudly how much they want to kill, it seems only obvious that they must be vetted.
Israel isn’t the only country with a violent border. The US border with Mexico is witness to killings by brutal Mexican cartels like the Zetas. If some Zetas members, having just been in a gun battle with Mexican police, showed up demanding medical treatment, one would hope that if they were permitted treatment they would be closely monitored.
Israel’s guise of humanitarian aid has allowed it to be used by the Syrian rebel groups as a rear operating area for medical needs. It is a kind of MASH unit for the Syrian rebels. If it was one or two rebels who by mistake got medical treatment in Israel one could say that there is plausible deniability. But when hundreds have received treatment someone must ask, is Israel the primary caregiver to the Syrian rebels. Does every rebel commander know in the sector on the Golan that when his men are wounded they are directly dropped off to the IDF for treatment? By providing excellent medical aid Israel is perpetuating the conflict and playing a role in it. It isn’t some benign caregiver. Perhaps it was initially, but now a dangerous situation has developed, a road to hell paved with good intentions.
The narrative that Israel’s “medical ethics” demand equal treatment for everyone does not hold water. Israel doesn’t treat everyone from Gaza. It doesn’t treat the Eritrean asylum seekers stuck behind the fence in Sinai. Israel sought to establish a medical mission in Syria. This is part of a long history of Israel’s medical missions to disaster areas. But what happened in Syria is not a disaster area, but a military area. It would be like if the hospital in Nepal began operating to help earthquake victims and became the main hospital for the Nepalese army fighting the Communist insurgency. Mission creep is dangerous.
The concept that says Israel gains “strategic allies” and “intelligence” from the men that it treats in Rambam hospital deep inside Israel is also nonsensical. If the real goal is to create a strategic ally with “moderate” rebels and keep the border free from Hezbollah, that can all be accomplished through emergency first aid at the border. These wounded 18 year olds don’t provide any intelligence. There is a serious chance they are actually using Israel, pretending to provide intelligence, or that some of the may even be gathering intelligence on Israel. One day one of them may come back as a suicide bomber.
Israel has a habit of dogmatic non-questioning of security policy. It also has a habit of underestimating those around it. In the old days Israel thought that Hamas was a “moderate” movement that could be leveraged against Fatah. But Hamas became the much more deadly enemy. Israel has kidded itself with benevolent aid missions in other places, like working with Idi Amin. Each time Israel is surprised that “they turned on us.” That illustrates that Israel is constantly being used, it isn’t “using” these groups. They see Israel for what it is, a gullible and naïve state that constantly wants friends in a dangerous region. And Israel has these rose-colored glasses all the time.
Israel should restrict access to areas inside the country and no allow anymore Syrian military age men to leave the field hospital. Only elderly and women and children should be permitted medical care. The good intentions did enough. If the theory is that Israel spread “good will” with the rebels, it has done enough. Ironically the more aid that is given the more dependent they are on it and the more entitled they become, such that when it is cut off they will then hate Israel more for denying it. Stop now, while Israel still can.