The Chutzpah of Israel offering its land to Syrian refugees

Published January 15th, 2012 - 04:07 GMT
Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus. Will Syria be generating refugees of its own following this current crisis?
Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus. Will Syria be generating refugees of its own following this current crisis?

With the news that Israel has put itself forward with the good grace to receive the expected influx of Alawite refugees from Syria, we should check what feels a little wrong with this picture.  

Israel’s military chief has revealed that Israel expects the fall-out of the sinking Assad regime to involve minority Alawites left vulnerable, and therefore, likely to seek refuge across the border with Israel. According to Gantz,  "we are getting ready to take in Alawite refugees in the Golan Heights." Israel's forecast for the coming months includes the ouster of increasingly hot-under-the-collar Assad - who just days ago announced confidently that ‘there is no revolution’ - and accordingly, their contingency charitable good-will plan to receive Syrians fleeing a regime collapse. Defense Minister Ehud Barak shared his prediction for Assad's rapid decline: "In my opinion ... he won't see the end of the year. I don't think he will even see the middle of this year. It doesn't matter if it will take six weeks or 12 weeks, he will be toppled and disappear."

Does Israel, the home of the fiercely contested Holy Land, have place to accommodate any refugees when it is notoriously and adamantly keeping Palestinian refugees from 1948 - in Lebanon and Syria - and even those who left after 1967 (many camping out in Jordan) from ‘returning’. Israel, while the receiver of Jewish aspiring Israeli citizens of the world, is not known for its generosity with its land since '48 and '67 mass land seizures and accompanying expulsions. What's more, as it acquires more space through colony-like settlements, it is hardly positioned to be generous with 'occupied' spaces. Add to that the fact that the Palestinian Authority just submitted a bid for statehood in 2011 on modest grounds within current state lines, that amount to a claim for some of the 22% of historical Palestine contested since 1967. This claim upset Israel, the USA and a Security Council that froze stiff. Any land, therefore, from the ‘land for peace’ theoretical peace premise is pretty premium and not to be spared lightly.

Generosity with disputed land

A brief look at Israel's record of dealing with refugees generally shows a quite the story of generating them, with the odd incidence of receiving them. After creating a refugee problem on quite a catastrophic scale in 1948, of at least 100,000, it took care of them by making them an Arab problem. Lebanon, Jordan and Syria primarily, though not exclusively, took care of the refugees created as collateral damage from the birth of Israel, and those that remained internally were reluctantly either absorbed into ambivalent Israelihood or kept in camps or refugee gatherings. One could be forgiven for wondering if it would behoove them to refrain from taking on more refugees, until they were managing their 'own' refugees, and internally displaced peoples.

The audacity of offering Arabs land (not for peace): A Golan shaped space for Alawites

Internationally recognized as Syrian territory, Golan Heights, became occupied and governed by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. This region is of strategic value to Israel, supplying the country with one-third of its water an advantageous look-out post for the region.

Who inhabits Golan today? 10% of Syrian Golan Druze have accepted Israeli citizenship. After Israel annexed the Golan region, the 20,000 Druze living in five villages to the north were given the choice of becoming citizens. Of those that didn't accept the offer, some chose to be recognized as "Syrians abroad."

In spite of Jewish settlements that are on the rise, the majority of the population remains non-Jewish. So Alawite arrivals could be quite at home with their Druze 'cousins' (both forming minority sects as offshoots of Islam). There is reason then beyond proximity to the choice of Golan.

However, where sectarian strife is at play, bearing a close or distant relation to another sect, has never guaranteed friendship, and can be source of aggravated tensions. Israel by bringing Syrian Alawites together with Syrian and Israeli Druze could in fact exacerbate the plethora Arab problem(s).

Incidentally, Israel has a history of getting involved in neighboring hostile Arab countries’ sectarian strife. It has used another countries moral strife to claim moral superiority in the past. 

Lebanese Refugees: Not the Palestinians, nor the Lebanese from the South's War on Israel

Lest we forget Israel lending a helping hand to those Lebanese devients who got in neck deep by 2000, here's an overview of Israel allied with Lebanon that we hear less and less of since Hezbollah's 2006 War. Under Ehud Barak's decision to unilaterally withdraw his troops and with them effectively his commitments to his Lebanese allies, the Lebanese faction that was the South Lebanon Army (SLA), Israel offered its floundering friends some concession -  indeed a life-line. Having left this renegade offshoot of the main Lebanese army vulnerable to a wider Lebanon who considered them traitors for aligning with Israel, it opened its usually firmly shut, noncompromising borders to a hefty amount of (mainly) Christian Lebanese allies. Israel had over-stayed its sojourn in South Lebanon, and so was keen to be shot of all comittments in the country, so instead invited its ally in war, the SLA back to the homeland for security.

Friend of Israel: SLA

This homegrown Lebanese militia, the SLA, a breakaway band of initially about 2,500 mostly Christian Lebanese who split from the Lebanese Army in 1976, had in some fashion sold out its own people per say, for an IDF (Israeli army) that later sold them down the (Litani) river. The SLA comprised of both Christians and Shiites who allied themselves with Israel to protect their homes initially from Palestinian guerilla groups present in the South at one time, or later against Hezbollahin the '90s.  

The decision for an IDF unilateral, perhaps abrupt, withdrawal with respect to their co-dependents the SLA, caused this former military stronghold in the South to disintegrate into havoc and despair. Southerner of SLA affiliation feared being massacred immediately by Hezbollah or being tried and tortured or worse as "enemies of the state" by the Lebanese authorities.  Many members of the SLA, including some with their families, fled to Israel, whose borders were opened and ready to receive Lebanese (mostly Christian) refugees from the fall-out of a withdrawal. The Israeli retreat left these southern forces to fend for themselves against a hostile Hezbollah who quickly entered the vacuum left behind by the Israeli presence that had kept them at bay. In effect, the Israeli government abandoned an SLA that very much wanted to stay in existence, but was forced to disband due to the sudden halt in reinforcements that had propped them up and bolstered their campaigns.

Since Israel's withdrawal gambit of the year 2000, there remain some 2000 Lebanese refugees living in Israel – the majority of the initial wave have since left or found other alternative lives. Israeli Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin today responsible for these people’s welfare, speaks fo the 7, 200 that Israel initially harbored with now 2,200 remaining. All together, about 6,500 dispossessed Lebanese fled into Israel, which was unprepared for such large numbers of refugees. Apparently, Israeli authorities had expected only 500-plus Lebanese --principally the senior intelligence personnel and officers, and their families, to end up in Israel, and were not prepared for such a response when they extended their offer to open their borders.

Over a decade later, those remaining in Israel are largely unemployed, socially excluded and economically faring quite poorly.  The 50% who work take up lower-rung labor positions in the services or agriculture industries and factories. Many live below the poverty line. According to recent interviews obtained with some Lebanese living in a sea of Israeli nationals in the Galilee area -  in the districts of Tiberias, Nahariya, Safed, and Karmiel, amongst others - these disenfranchised Lebanese are accusing Israel of neglect and not looking after them as promised. They feel that Israel has forsaken them, reneging on their responsibility and honor with respect to first their strategic alliance, and now their welfare.

At one time, they’d feared returning to the home-land as they'd be tried for treason. Yet in recent interviews, many state they would rather face their fate in Lebanon than wallow in their miserable lives as refugees in Israel. In fact, many SLA members who stayed behind and either surrendered themselves to the authorities or were captured by Hezbollah, received a widely reported civilised and lenient treatment at the hands of Lebanese military courts trying them for treason. Typically they received short sentencing at most.

Israel claims it is trying to help them as much as possible, freeing up housing for them. Avi Lecther, in charge of this file of people, makes the point that at the end of the day, they are not strictly their responsibility or charge: 'These Lebanese refugees did what they did for their own gains and advantage at the time, and Israel helped them to defend their own homes and cause; and it is only down to Israel's moral character that we sheltered them in our land.' These Lebanese across the Israel border feel somewhat let down by statements as this that leave them feeling sold out.

All Quiet on the Golan Front

Meanwhile, back to the border with Syria that is just this week under scrutiny, and all is so far, so quiet. Irael captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Despite the distinct lack of peace between the two countries who are technically at war, the Golan frontier has largely remained quiet, with a rare scuffle only occuring in this tempestuous past year of Arab revolutions, 2011, with a brief May forray of Palestinian supporters the 'Syrian' side of Golan charging or making a run at the border. Syria houses thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war of Israel's foundation. Syrians living in the Golan territory  are under occupation technically, just as the Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

While initially it was apparent that Israel had kept quiet during much of the Assad domestic crackdowns, and has made minimal comment since the crisis last year began, it is now taking a pragmatic view to the 'change' that might occur and beset its 30-year peaceful Syrian ceasefire border.  Such was the extent of the untroubled border, that Israeli governments, on the back of the peaceful track record of direct relations with this Arab neighbor have sought peace with Assad, seeing his government as a pivotal counter for wider Israeli-Arab compromise.

Assad has so far kept attention from the Golan front, not attempting to divert attention from the hot angry areas as Homs, Derra, Alleppo or Hama. In truth, while Syria famously in international rhetoric professes big enemiship with Israel, together with Hezbollah, Hammas and Iran, it has kept hostilities away from its own borders, with not one bullet fired in 30 years until 2011. 

In the eventuality that Alawites should flee their Syrian country lines to enemy State Israel, they would be shown up to be traitors to the Syrian cause as well as the Arabist agenda of the Ba'athist regime. Such a divisive exodus that breached enemy lines would prove explosive for communal relations in multi-sect Syria. In fact, Israel's diplomatic leak of this anticipation or expectation in itself could rock the dividing communities in Syria further, deepening the sectarian edge to this crisis. With Sunnis viewing these Alawites as traitors before the act, they would be left with even less choice but to turn to Israel for sanctuary.

Escape into Israel

Israel is generally anticipating change to strike its once serene separation line on Golan, that for 30 years has upheld the truce between the two nations commendably.  If the Golan border became a focal point for sectarian strife, it might also result in re-ignited hostilities with Israel. Israel, initially wary of the prospect of the Syrian regime falling, may be fearful of Islamic extremists entering the Golan and aggravating the erstwhile stable and calm front. 

Israel has recently changed tack and accepted the fact that the Assad regme will fall eventually, this year they insist, and seems less than rattled as they make contingency plans to accept Alawites seeking safe-haven. Their grip on supposed reality and their pragmatic foresight of this possible regime collapse, has produced an announcement that may only fan the flames of simmering sectarian strife in Syria.

In fact, it sounds as if Israel wouldn't be altogether unprepared if trouble started brewing on its formerly quiet restrained border in a similar way to Egypt’s embassy fiasco and renewed border tit for tat post Mubarak. Apart from border agitations or threats to Israel, Syria could slip into a sectarian civil war between the majority Sunni Muslims and the Alawites and other minorities which support Assad.

Sectarian aggravation is fine by Israel!

The Israeli Druze community in Israel, some 125,000, both in and out of Golan are known to be  loyal and affiliated with the state of Israel. A marginal community, these Druze have a major role in Israel's elite army. Thousands of Druze are currently in the army, according to an IDF spokesperson, and have an established tradition of service for 55 years now.
Israeli's high intake of Druze Arab IDF soldiers is already a source of tension within Israel between the general Arab minority Israeli population (and non-Israeli Palestinian population). Israeli Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian, are not eligible for membership to the Israeli army, so this service right sets the Druze Israelis off from their fellow Arabs in and out of Israel. Several hundred Druze are currently in the army, according to an IDF spokesperson and many have died in service.

Israel positively might have a political interest in engineering or provoking such a Syrian sectarian spill-out if it led to security reinforcements rather than threats to the state of Israel.


By Dina Dabbous


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Bawaba's editorial policy.


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