In a popular Syrian news group on Facebook, a Syrian activist recently shared a video of Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teenager in jail for slapping an Israeli soldier. Across the world, Tamimi has become a cause celebré, a symbol of the Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. But when the activist posted the Amnesty International video about Israel’s policy of detaining children and Tamimi in particular, most of the group’s members — all of them Syrian — reacted dismissively.
“They are better off than us by far, and prisoners are better off compared to how they are treated by Assad’s army and even the revolutionary factions [rebels],” wrote one Syrian from Lattakia.
“If the Syrian army was like the Israeli army, no one would have been displaced from their home,” another commentator, from Daraa, wrote. “If [Tamimi] had raised her head in front of a Syrian soldier, he would have field executed her.”
Far from outliers, these comments exemplify a changing reality among Syrians. The extreme levels of brutality meted out by the Assad regime and its allies against civilians in Syria have improved the image of the IDF by comparison across the Arab world.
On April 17, 2018, when Palestinians mark Prisoner’s Day, a popular Syrian opposition website decided to mark the occasion by posting an infographic comparing Israeli prisons and those of the Assad regime.
The infographic shows that while 7,000 Palestinians are incarcerated in Israel, 220,000 Syrians are held in regime detention facilities. According to the infographic, 210 Palestinians have died in Israeli prisons since 1967, while 65,000 Syrians have died in regime detention over the past seven years.
Such irreverence of Palestinian suffering by an Arab media outlet would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
It’s not just by comparison, either. Israeli humanitarian assistance and medical treatment in southern Syria has resulted in a marked shift in public opinion among Syrians who oppose the regime, especially in southern Syria, an area whose residents enjoy access to Israeli help.
“This is the first time in the region that they [Israelis] help without being an occupier,” says Shadi Martini, a Syrian who serves as the Director of Humanitarian Relief and Regional Relations to the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, an organization providing much of the aid passing through Israel. “People are really seeing Israel in a different way. People are not even afraid to talk about working with Israel, because their friends and families support them; otherwise, they would have stayed silent.”
Since 2013, when the program first started, Israeli hospitals have treated over 5,000 Syrians, providing them with life-saving and state-of-the-art medical treatment. Syrians who have received treatment in Israel report to their friends and relatives about the quality of care. Several residents of southern Syria pointed out to me that Jordanian hospitals treat Syrians much worse, and are quick to amputate limbs, whereas Israeli doctors conduct multiple operations in an effort to save injured limbs.
In addition to medical care, Israel publicly admitted to providing limited humanitarian assistance to border villages in Syria starting in 2013. Initially, much of the assistance was provided covertly, to ensure that Syrians would not hesitate to receive the aid. But in 2016, Israel began shipping goods with Hebrew packaging into southern Syria.
In June 2016, Israel established the “Good Neighbor” unit inside the IDF to coordinate all the aid efforts into southern Syria. In 2017 and 2018, they significantly increased the quantities and types of aid provided, including fuel, generators, food, clothes, baby formula, medicine, diapers and hygiene products. The IDF has shipped hundreds of tons of food and clothes into southern Syria, most of it financed by Israeli and Christian Zionist NGOs.
But it’s not just aid that’s caused the shift in perception. Views toward Israel among Syrians also changed thanks to its strikes on the Assad regime, Hezbollah and later Iranian targets in Syria.
For the first six years of the civil war in Syria, Israel was the only foreign force to have bombed the Assad regime and its allies, the parties responsible for about 90% of civilian casualties in Syria. And while not all anti-Assad Syrians support the strikes, many do, and they are no longer afraid to express those views openly on social media.
“The Israeli Army is our hope,” wrote a Syrian woman in response to (false) reports about Israeli strikes on regime targets in mid-April 2018.
While Syrians recognize that Israel is bombing Hezbollah for its own interests and not to advance their revolutionary goals, they are still pleased to see the regime and its allies humiliated and diminished. As a Syrian residing in southern Syria recently told me, “We hope Israel will bomb the presidential palace, too.”
Israeli strikes are seen as such a morale boost that opposition media activists and journalists have, at times, knowingly spread fake news about them to lift the spirits of the opposition that has suffered one loss after another since the Russian intervention in late 2015.
“We did this because of all our defeats; we wanted to give people hope,” explained an Aleppo-based media activist who justified spreading such false reports in February 2018.
The shift in views regarding Israel is coupled with an increasingly negative view of Palestinians among Syrian opposition supporters. Inside Syria, all but one Palestinian armed group have fought on the side of the regime as auxiliary militias. These Palestinian pro-regime militias are responsible for grave human rights violations, including the siege of the Palestinian Yarmouk camp south of Damascus by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which resulted in the death by starvation of dozens of people. Liwaa’ al-Quds (“the Jerusalem Brigade”) is infamous for its abuses of civilians, looting and war-profiteering in regime-controlled areas such as Aleppo city and eastern Ghouta.
Palestinian political parties and organizations such as Fatah, the PLO and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have either sided with the regime or remained silent about its crimes. Hamas initially criticized the regime and thus significantly harmed its relationship with Iran, Assad’s erstwhile backer. In 2017, relations between Hamas and Iran improved significantly, and in April 2018, Hamas publicly denounced the American-British-French strike on Assad’s chemical facilities.
Hamas’ reaction was met with rage among Syrians. Hadi al-Abdullah, the most prominent Syrian opposition media activist, published a series of tweets criticizing Hamas. “All we ask from [Hamas] is to honor our blood,” he wrote, by not publicly siding with Iran, Hezbollah and the regime “that has killed thousands of Palestinians in Syria.”
While lauding Israeli strikes on the regime, some Syrians were quick to clarify that this does not mean abandoning the Palestinian issue. As prominent activist from northwestern Syria who fled the country to Turkey due to regime bombings and threats from a jihadist group wrote on Facebook,
“My Palestinian friend, don’t be sad when we support military strikes carried out by the Israeli or American occupation [forces] against the Shia militias or against the Syrian regime. I assure you that if the [Syrian] people were not fed up with this dirty regime, the Shia militias and the Russian occupation, they wouldn’t have been happy to see their country being bombed by the Israeli or American occupation. During the past seven years, the regime, Iran and Russia destroyed and displaced in Syria more than the Israeli occupation has been able to do in 70 years of occupying Palestine. There’s no difference between the Palestinian issue and the Syrian issue.”
In southern Syria, views regarding Israel’s assistance and intervention are mixed as well, but they are significantly more positive than they were prior to 2011. Israeli assistance was initially quite controversial, with groups accusing one another of serving as Israeli agents by providing aid. Jihadist groups are particularly opposed to such cooperation and have previously targeted suspected collaborators with Israel. Accusations and counter-accusations still occur, but the growing desperation of the population, coupled with Israel’s hasbara efforts in Arabic and the normalization of Israeli aid have made receiving aid much more acceptable in the eyes of many Syrians residing in the south.
“People here welcome Israel now,” a member of one of the Free Syrian Army factions supported by Israel in Daraa told me. “I bought a jeans jacket for my son that is from Israel and the quality is very high and prices are good.”
Aid supplied for free from Israel is often sold by profiteers, but prices are still quite low. While some recognize that Israel is motivated not simply by the desire to help Syrians, others believe that Israel’s motives are entirely altruistic.
“Israel is a humanitarian state and much better than the Arab regimes,” a resident of a village near the border fence along the Golan told me.
Others, however, are more critical, like the head of a humanitarian NGO operating in Syria. “Israel has a larger aim in the south,” he said. “They want to occupy us and make the people recognize the State of Israel.” For this reason he has decided not to cooperate with Israel: “Israel isn’t giving anything without something in return.”
But this point of view is seen by many as outdated. “Some here hate Israel and others do not,” a reporter with a Syrian opposition television channel told me. “Those who hate Israel are either old or are affected by the hatred the Baath regime put in them.”
In addition to humanitarian aid, it was revealed that Israel was supplying military support as well, which is much more controversial.
Israeli military support to Free Syrian Army factions in south-western Syria became an open secret in southern Syria in 2017, though many rebels are loathe to admit receiving Israeli support for fear of being accused of being Israel’s agents.
Groups that are known to receive Israeli support often receive negative comments on Facebook from Syrians accusing them of being “agents of the Jews.” At the same time, rebels are desperate for support after the end of the covert CIA program that provided salaries and weapons to many of them.
Israel’s military and humanitarian assistance to southern Syria, coupled with alarmist reports from pro-regime media outlets and journalists about an Israeli “safe zone” in Syria, have fostered a sense of hope among many in areas bordering on Israel that Israel would implement such a policy. The imposition of no-fly zone or a safe zone would offer the hundreds of thousands of civilians residing in the area a sense of security from Assad regime and Russian strikes. Israeli officials, however, have consistently rebuffed pleas by Syrian opposition activists to implement such a plan in the past, and its execution may pit Israel against Russia, Iranian-backed militias and the Assad regime. Several contacts in Syria have told me that if the regime’s attack on southwestern Syria materializes, they will flee toward the border fence and expect to be allowed to seek refuge in Israel.
At the same time, even Syrians expressing admiration for Israel are quick to believe conspiracy theories about its motivations, plans and actions. Activists and rebels in southern Syria have accused Israel of foiling numerous offensive operations against the Assad regime, even operations during which Israel aided the rebels, such as the failed attempt to prevent the capture of besieged Beit Jinn by regime forces.
During a research trip to southern Turkey, I was peppered with questions from activists, rebel and community leaders about why Israel supports the Assad regime and prevents his removal. Although no evidence exists publicly to support this claim, many pro-opposition Syrians believe that Israel convinced the Obama administration to keep Assad in power because Assad kept the border quiet with Israel, despite the occupation of the Golan.
The marked shift in Syrian public opinion toward Israel demonstrates that Arab public opinion is malleable and can be affected by aid efforts and regional realignments. However, as the Assad regime, with significant support from its foreign backers, regains control of Syria, it is unclear how this goodwill toward Israel among Syrian civilians will manifest in the future. The personal opinions of the Syrians, whether they are refugees or become docile subjects of Syria’s police state, are unlikely to matter as long as the Baath regime remains in power.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think-tank. She can be followed at @Elizrael on Twitter.