Israel’s good intentions get it in hot water on Syrian border

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Druse protesters last night attacked an Israel Defense Forces ambulance carrying Syrian members of armed militias who were wounded in the civil war,” explained the opening paragraph of a recent Israeli newspaper article. The IDF soldiers were not wounded, but one of the Syrian fighters was killed by the protesters, who believed him to be a member of one of the Islamist militias that have killed dozens of Druse over the course of the Syrian civil war.

A screenshot of the victim of the lynch, Munther Khalil, a fighter for the Revolutionary Command Council of Quneitra and the Golan.

A screenshot of the victim of the lynch, Munther Khalil, a fighter for the Revolutionary Command Council of Quneitra and the Golan.

There is no doubt the men being transported in the ambulance were wounded in the Syrian civil war, and reports confirmed they had been “shot in the legs.” Their medical condition was described as “light to moderate.” Druse leaders have appealed for calm and Israeli leaders have painted this is a law-and-order issue, arresting a dozen suspected perpetrators of the lynching. One army commander has urged using helicopters to transport Syrian wounded to hospitals closer to the center of the country. However, there has been little discussion of just what is going on regarding Israel’s ongoing medical support for Syrians, including “moderate” militants.

THE SYRIAN civil war began in 2011 but it was not until November 2012 that Israel found itself having to retaliate following the firing of mortars from Syrian territory into the Golan Heights. The Syrian rebels accused Israel of acting to help Syrian President Bashar Assad. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the area.

We are 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 there has been a trickle of fire from Syria; in March 2013 Israel retaliated after receiving rocket fire and in September 2014 and January 2015 Israel reportedly hit Syrian military posts.

Foreign media also reported that missiles fired by Israel Air Force helicopters killed six Hezbollah members in January 2015, including Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the late Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. Later that month Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers. As Assad’s army withdrew from areas along the border it became essential for Israel to be cognizant of who it’s new neighbors were, and show preference for those groups that were judged to be less dangerous to national security. While one of Israel’s goals was to prevent Iranian-backed Hezbollah sitting on both it’s Syrian and Lebanese borders, it had no clear way to achieve this, short of hoping that the Sunni Arab militias would gain the upper hand against Assad.

The plight of Syrian civilians also became an issue for Israel. In February 21, 2013, following Shlomi Eldar’s article at Al-Monitor on the subject, a lobby sprang up advocating that Israel 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. The concept was soft diplomacy: give Syrians medical aid and they will hate Israel less.

So Israel built a field hospital. According to reports, by January 2014 around 500 Syrians had been treated, about 40 percent in the field and the others at Ziv Medical Center in Safed. By December 2014 more than 1,000 Syrians had been treated in four hospitals in Israel. “Many of the wounded are civilians, and some are members of the secular Free Syrian Army rebel group,” reported i24 news.

In February 2014 Netanyahu took the press on a tour. He 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,” he said. Iranian media responded by accusing Israel of giving medical aid to “terrorists.”

Beginning in late 2013 a new element emerged. Druse in Syria were suffering casualties from the rebel forces fighting Assad. Since Druse were perceived as being allies of the regime, the rebels and also al-Qaida began targeting them. Syrian Druse tend to be in close contact with Druse in the Golan, and since the 1980s many Golan Druse have crossed Quneitra in the Golan to visit relatives, marry or study in Syria. In October of 2013 Druse spiritual leader Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif appealed to president Shimon Peres for guarantees that Israel would provide a safe haven for Druse refugees from the war.

Screenshot of Defense Minister's comments

Screenshot of Defense Minister’s comments

But rumors, combined with reports from the UN observer force UNDOF and others, led many in the Druse community to believe that Israel was treating wounded Syrian fighters, who they suspected were allied with jihadists. One group of young Druse 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 factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh [Islamic State or IS].”

Druse leaders continued their appeals, going directly to President Rivlin, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and others to help their brethren. Israel said it would not intervene in Syria. On June 18 an IDF officer told Haaretz that rumors of fighting in the Druse border village of Khadr were incorrect and that Israel “has no intention of participating in fighting in Syria…the Syrians should stay in Syria and Israelis in Israel…we don’t let people into Israel for no reason.” The report noted that Israel “has relayed messages to Sunni rebel groups operating in that part of the Golan, warning them against attacking…Khadr.” Official Israeli statements aside, the depth of Israel’s involvement in the Syrian conflict along the Golan border has become increasingly clear.

VICE News has conducted interviews with Syrian fighters being treated in Israel, and 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 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the work of the UN 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 IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, 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.”

However, Channel 2 TV’s June 20 interviews with the military-age men being treated in Israeli hospitals appeared to contradict Lerner’s statement. “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 interviewer. “I want to fight,” said another. Asked if they would kill Druse, they became more cagey in their answers.

A screenshot from the Channel 2 interview

A screenshot from the Channel 2 interview

Druse in Israel saw this report, and others like it, and became convinced there was little difference between these “moderate” fighters and extreme jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra which had massacred Syrian Druse. On June 22, an IDF ambulance driving through Hurfeish, a Druse village in the Galilee, was stoned. Then, a few hours later, another ambulance was stopped, near the Golan village of Majdal Shams, the male patients taken out and one of them lynched. The media reported the Druse had killed a “militant.”

At no point during this entire process has any leading Israeli politician questioned Israel’s basic policy stance on offering medical treatment to Syrians. The issue is presented purely as a “law and order” problem, and the media have been told that Druse anger is based on “rumors and conspiracy theories” fed by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

Druse leaders have tried to calm tensions.

THERE IS a fundamental contradiction between Israel’s stated policies on the Syrian conflict and the degree to which it has become involved. Israel has made a dangerous bargain with the “moderate” Syrian fighters. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Haaretz in October that “the area adjacent to the border is under control of more moderate militias, such as the Free Syrian Army. It’s no secret that they benefit from the humanitarian assistance that we provide to the residents of the villages in the area: medical care in our hospitals, food for infants, equipment and blankets in the winter. That happens on condition that they don’t allow the more extremist organizations to reach the border.”

IDF soldiers rush a wounded Syrian to hospital in Haifa, from Twitter

IDF soldiers rush a wounded Syrian to hospital in Haifa, from Twitter

Are those Syrian fighters in Israeli hospitals, who boast of going back to fight and who seem to have “light to moderate” wounds, truly in need of being helicoptered back and forth from a field hospital that could provide them on-site first aid? What portion of those being treated are military-age males who openly admit being fighters? Why does there seem to be official reluctance to take in Druse fleeing the fighting, but not Sunni militants? Shouldn’t a minimum of vetting be done to make sure those in the hospitals in the heart of Israel are not murderers, war criminals, or terrorists? Has Israel’s humanitarian aid policy led to it becoming a combat support hospital for Syrian rebel groups? If it was one or two rebels among hundreds or thousands of Syrian women and children receiving medical treatment in Israel, such an idea could be easily dismissed. But with perhaps hundreds of fighters receiving regular treatment, someone must ask: is Israel the primary caregiver to Syrian rebels in the border area? Does every rebel commander in the sector know that when his men are wounded they are to be handed to the IDF for treatment? If so, Israel is already part of the conflict.

Even if perhaps initially Israel’s policy was benign and its eventual involvement unintentional, now it seems a dangerous situation may have developed, a road to hell paved with good intentions.

IDF soldiers’ lives are being put at needless risk to aid wounded Syrian fighters some of whose commanders are outsourcing first aid to the IDF. Video showing soldiers rushing these wounded fighters to hospitals remind us how few safeguards appear to be in place to protect civilian Israel. With the Free Syrian Army launching “operation Southern Storm” last Thursday, potentially flooding the border with more casualties, it is imperative to plan for the future.

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, another chapter in Israel’s long history of sending medical missions to disaster areas. But what is happening in Syria is not a natural disaster but a man-made one. Mission creep is dangerous.

The argument that Israel gains “strategic allies” and “intelligence” from fighters it treats in places like Rambam Hospital deep inside Israel is also nonsensical. If the true goal is to create a strategic alliance with “moderate” rebels and keep the border free of Hezbollah, that can all be accomplished through emergency first aid at the border.

The aftermath of the lynch (0404 news)

The aftermath of the lynch (0404 news)

These wounded 18-year-olds don’t provide any intelligence. In fact, there is a serious possibility that some may actually be providing faulty intelligence, or even gathering intelligence on Israel. One day one of them may come back, and not to say thank you.

When some of these “moderate” rebels turn out to be not so moderate, it won’t be the first time Israel has been hoodwinked by Islamist “allies.” When Hamas was first founded Israel viewed it as a counterweight to Fatah, but in the end Hamas became much more dangerous. Israel should restrict access to its territory and not allow any more Syrian military-age men with light to moderate wounds to leave the field hospital.

Only the elderly, women and children should be given medical care. Ironically the more aid is given the more dependent on Israel these “moderate” rebels will become, and the more entitled they become, the more some will blame and hate Israel when aid is eventually cut off. The long-term goal should be quiet in the north, not extending the sectarian battles going on in Syria into the Israeli Golan. The Syrian rebels may be allies against Hezbollah, just like the South Lebanese Army once was, but if war comes with Hezbollah some of these rebel units will not be helpful, but rather a burden. They may not be an asset but a liability. Israel should break with them cleanly now, while it still can.

Follow the author @Sfrantzman

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