Israel in dilemma over thousands of Syrians fleeing fighting

Monday , July 02, 2018 - 6:02 AM

Ruth Eglash

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

JERUSALEM - Israel’s message has been clear. Its red lines reiterated again and again: It does not want to get embroiled in the ongoing civil war in Syria.

But, as the fighting draws ever closer to its northern border and an estimated 11,000 internally displaced civilians have flooded the area in recent days, maintaining such a policy might prove challenging.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad are in the midst of a military offensive, aided by Russia, to recapture territory in southern Syria held by various rebel groups. The fighting has forced up to 50,000 people to flee their homes in the Deraa region over the past week, according to the United Nations.

Most have headed toward their country’s other southern neighbor Jordan, whose border remains closed, but some have turned toward Israel, trying to get as close as they can to the border where the Israeli military keeps a close eye on events and where, according to local media reports, they feel relatively safe.

In a tweet on Friday, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the situation was being closely monitored. He offered Israel’s help but stopped short of saying his country would become a safe haven for Syrians.

“We will continue to preserve Israel’s security interests and, as always, we are prepared to provide any humanitarian aid to women and children but we will not accept any Syrian refugees into our territory,” he wrote.

On Sunday, the Israeli military announced it was reinforcing its artillery and armored units in the area in light of what was happening over the border.

Still formally at war with Syria, Israel has waded into the conflict only sporadically, either to curtail Iran’s growing influence in the region or when there is spillover from battles taking place along its border. And despite international pleas, Israel has consistently pushed back against taking in refugees, even as neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have accepted Syrian civilians in the hundreds of thousands.

Israel has, however, been active in providing humanitarian aid and medical services to those who arrive at its border. Exactly a year ago, together with international aid agencies, the army established a field hospital on the Golan, part of what it calls “Operation Good Neighbors,” though it did work covertly helping before then.

Over the past year, the army says that approximately 6,000 civilians have received treatment and thousands more have visited Israeli hospitals. It has also transferred vast amounts of food, gasoline and essential medical equipment to the population on its border.

Responding to the influx of people arriving in the area last week, the Israeli military said it has increased those efforts. On Friday, it sent over hundreds of tents, additional food and other supplies. On Saturday, it had allowed six Syrians, including four children, to cross into Israel for emergency medical treatment.

But for some, Israel’s role is not enough. Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, former military spokesman Peter Lerner called Lieberman’s zero refugee policy “morally questionable.”

He said, “Israel should make exceptions to its ‘no entry’ policy for refugees, especially orphaned children who are in dire need.” And, if Israel will not allow them in, then at least it should establish a “safe zone” on the eastern side of the border.

Professor Moshe Zimmerman, a historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said as long as Syria remained an enemy country, then Israel would not open its gates to refugees from there, but based on “Jewish faith and its past, Israel should have opened the border a long time ago,” he said.

Responding to the recent developments, he said Israel now had two options - either to open its border or to push the international community to create a zone in the southern part of Syria where Israel can bring in medical and other support for those who are fleeing the fighting.

Gal Lasky, founder and CEO of Israel Flying Aid, a nonprofit that has been instrumental in getting aid from Israel into Syria, said this was essential because “Israel is the only access point to help these people.”

“I don’t think Israel should take in these people, but it should make sure there is a wide enough buffer zone so they can be safe,” she said. “Women and children are not to blame for this situation and we need to do what we can now because I don’t know if we will have access to them in the coming months.”

The commander of Operation Good Neighbors said it was too early to know what would happen in the coming days or weeks as Syrian forces continued their military offensive.

“It is possible there will be a cease fire, we need to wait and see,” said the lieutenant colonel who could not be identified in keeping with Israeli military orders. “But I believe that we will continue providing aid for as long as they request our assistance and as long as we can provide it.”

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