Why Do Israelis Care So Much About Syrians But Not About Palestinians?
On Saturday night, the Israeli Defense Forces released footage of a rescue operation, in which over 400 humanitarian aid workers in Syria, known as White Helmets, were evacuated by Israel along with their families and ferried through the Golan Heights to safety in Jordan.
It’s not the first time Israel has engaged in humanitarian efforts to aid its war-torn neighbors as the Syrian uprising deteriorated into a gruesome civil war.
In addition to the IDF’s massive humanitarian efforts, Israeli citizens, both Arab and Jewish, have mobilized to express their solidarity with Syrians, providing meals, shelter, educational and medical services to tens of thousands of Syrians, in particular, residents of southern Syria and refugees in Greece.
These efforts stand in marked contrast to the way the IDF and Israel’s population treat another embattled population in their midst: the Palestinians.
What could possibly explain the genuine empathy felt by centrist and even right-wing Israelis toward Syrians, and their simultaneous apathy toward the suffering of Palestinians?
Support for Syrians from the Left and the Right
Israeli mobilization on behalf of the Syrians began in Daam, a small Jewish-Palestinian political party, which organized protests in Jaffa and in front of the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv, as well as poetry readings and lectures. Protesters would raise the flag of the Syrian opposition, chant slogans, and sing songs that were developed by Syrian protesters during the first months of the peaceful uprising.
“I followed with my friends the social protests in Syria, the mass dabke dancing of young men and women in the streets, demanding to topple the dictator and live in a democracy without oppression and I empathized with them,” Michal Shwartz, a Daam Party activist explained.
A long-time leftist Israeli activist, Schwartz began fundraising efforts for Syrians as the crisis escalated. “We wanted to enlist as many Israelis as possible, with the hope of creating a bridge between us and them, on a humanistic and democratic basis, and with the hope of fostering relations of peace with the Syrian people,” she explained.
In 2015, as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees reached Europe’s shores and were met with overwhelmed local responders and volunteers, citizens and NGOs from across the world sprang into action. Among them were Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel.
IsraAid set up an operation welcoming boats in Lesbos and provided basic aid and psycho-social assistance to refugees along their journey north in Europe. Meanwhile, HaShomer HaTzair-Ajyal, a bi-national Israeli youth movement, established the largest school in the island of Lesbos, through which over 2,000 students have passed to date. Natan-International Humanitarian Aid also provided medical and psycho-social care to refugees in the Balkans and eastern Europe and helped construct a community center in Lesbos, and Humanity Crew, staffed by Palestinian-Israeli volunteers, provided medical and psychological care.
These already robust efforts were galvanized by the death of Aylan al-Kurdi, the Syrian boy who washed up on Turkey’s shores after a treacherous boat journey with his family to Greece, and by the siege and fall of eastern Aleppo in the winter of 2016.
An outpouring of unprecedented Israeli solidarity and financial assistance materialized.
In October 2016, over 1,000 Israelis gathered in nine Israeli cities and localities to hold public prayers for deliverance of the Syrian people during the Days of Awe (first ten days during the month of Tishrei before the Day of Atonement). The events, held under the headline “The World is Silent, We Will Not Be!” involved prominent artists and Rabbis.
Prayers were also held in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beer Sheva, Pardes Hana, and Beit Shean, but also in Mitzpe Ronen in the Golan Heights which directly abuts Syria, and — most surprisingly — in Tekoa and Ariel, Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The participation of Israeli settlers, who live in the occupied West Bank and maintain tense relations with their Palestinian neighbors, was an unexpected addition to the Israeli support for the Syrians.
Ruti Doron, a teacher and resident of Tekoa, attended the public prayer. “I could not stand idly by,” she explained. “It is inconceivable to do so. Jewish history is deeply ingrained in my soul, in my blood. It was clear to me that I had to find a way to help.”
International inaction to combat the carnage in Syria reminded her of our history as Jews. “Today I understand how the world could remain silent during the Holocaust,” she told me.
In late 2016, Ruti and a group of women she knew formed an initiative devoted to collecting food, toys and clothing for Syrians residing close to the fence along the Golan. They called it “We Cannot Be Silent Anymore.”
At the height of its operation in early 2017, the organization managed 120 collection points from Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat, and all the way to the Golan Heights.
“It was the Israeli public in its entirely,” Ruti said. “I am from Tekoa, but there are people with me on the completely opposite end of the spectrum, the radical Left. Jews, Israelis, and at times even [Israeli] Arabs and Palestinians, religious, secular, leftists, right-wingers, all coming together.”
And young and old, too. “We had dozens of elderly ladies who knitted day and night winter apparel for Syrian children,” she said. “We had a boy who donated the money he received for his Bar Mitzah.”
But Israel’s efforts to aid the Syrian people aren’t only altruistic. A constant undercurrent is the desire to advance Israel’s interests by improving its image among Syrians and the rest of the world, the goal of much of Israel’s humanitarian aid.
This motivation is behind the official aid operation of the Israeli government, “Operation Good Neighbor,” which provided tonnes of aid to southern Syria, most of it financed by private foreign donors.
Israel began providing cross-fence humanitarian assistance to southern Syria in 2013, but in 2016, with the establishment of the “Good Neighbor” unit in the IDF, Israel stopped disguising the source of the aid, by providing aid in packaging with Hebrew writing.
At the same time, Israel began allowing media outlets to cover the operation. The initiative focused exclusively on villages and towns close to the Golan Heights, specifically in Quneitra and the western Daraa countryside.
This operation has indeed been quite successful in altering the perceptions of Israel among Syrians opposed to the Assad regime, and in particular, residents of communities that enjoyed Israeli assistance.
Israel recognized the utility to providing assistance to Syrians as a tool to recruit agents, to build a relationship with rebel groups guarding the border fence along the Golan, and to improve its global image and affect public opinion in communities on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights.
How Israel Portrays Syrians vs. Palestinians
As part of the effort to justify this policy of assistance to an Israeli public accustomed to viewing Syrians as a threat, coverage of the Syrian patients receiving treatment in Israeli hospitals focused on women and children, although most patients hospitalized in Israel have been men of fighting age, according to an IDF officer involved in the effort. The coverage is entirely controlled by the IDF, which guards the rooms of Syrian patients and whose cooperation is required to access the patients.
Despite the demographics of the patients Israel has been assisting, an IDF video about operation “Good Neighbor” presented the aid effort as one assisting Syrian civilians who are “not at all involved in the battle” raging in Syria.
The current Israeli government has the opposite interest when it comes to the Palestinians. Israeli officials routinely vilify Palestinians and present all of them as a threat. Israel’s Minister of Defense, Avigdor Liberman, infamously made a blanket statement about the two million residents of the Gaza Strip, arguing that “there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip. Everyone has a connection to Hamas.”
Of course, it helps that Syria has not engaged in direct conflict with Israel since 1982, unlike the Palestinians.
The Palestinian Threat
It’s this level of threat that explains partially the difference in treatment Israelis afford Syrians and Palestinians.
Ending the occupation or easing restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement is seen as a direct threat to Israel’s security, whereas providing cross-border assistance to Syrians or even temporarily admitting them for medical care in Israel does not.
“The security issue is so important to our people,” Ruti from Tkoa explained to me. “We’ve been through so much. We are a nation that must protect itself.”
There’s another reason, though, that I think is at the core of Israelis’ willingness to help Syrians but not Palestinians.
Israel’s military control over the Palestinians and daily violations of human rights stemming from this policy are carried out by Israelis and in the name of Israelis. And the natural human desire to feel good about oneself and one’s social group leads Israelis to minimize Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and to look for justifications for Israel’s conduct.
When civilians are killed in IDF operations, Israelis often describe the casualties as “human shields” used by militant groups. When Israeli soldiers are caught on camera abusing Palestinians, a common refrain is that the video does not show what the Palestinian did to provoke the soldiers’ reaction.
Since the forces carrying out war crimes in Syria are not Israeli and their atrocities are not carried out in the name of protecting Israelis’ security, Israelis do not feel the need to resort to such psychological defences.
Israeli media freely labels Assad “the butcher of Damascus”, “a murderer”, “a devil,” and accused him of perpetrating “genocide,” while newspapers feature graphic images of the regime’s victims on their front pages.
No Israeli politician or public figure, except those affiliated with the Communist Hadash Party, have attempted to justify Assad’s criminal conduct by claiming, for example, that those killed in densely populated rebel-held Syrian cities are “human shields.”
Because they are not in any way responsible for the plight of the Syrians, it is much easier for Israelis to sympathize with them.
Limits to Generosity
But even when it comes to Syrians, there’s a limit to Israel’s — and Israelis’ — generosity. Israelis engaged in the aid effort to Syrians are happy to donate their time and money, but accepting Syrian refugees into Israel is inconceivable to most of them, as non-Jewish refugees are seen as a demographic threat.
Israel is the only country bordering Syria that has not admitted a single Syrian refugee, while the much poorer Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq have absorbed hundreds of thousands.
Even the much-touted operation to rescue the Syrian Civil Defence (“White Helmets”) and their families last week, for which the IDF was happy to take credit, was only made possible after Canada, Great Britain, Germany agreed to resettle the rescued rescuers, and after Jordan agreed to host them while their visas are being processed.
The White Helmets spent only a few hours in Israel, in transit to Jordan.
As southern Syria fell under regime control, Israel continued to maintain its policy of refusing to admit any Syrian refugees, even when they approached the fence waving white flags and begged to be taken to safety. Israelis mobilized to collect tents, baby formula and candy, and called for protecting civilians, but on the Syrian side of the Golan fence.
As regime forces advanced, residents of southern Syria were left with the choice of either surrendering to a brutal police state and remaining in their homes, or being displaced to the rebel-held north, the possible next target of the regime and Russia.
Syrians who have received Israeli assistance for years and hoped that Israel would protect them from this fate were left deeply disappointed. The limitations of Israeli solidarity and assistance became apparent to all.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think-tank. She can be followed at @Elizrael on Twitter.