On Israeli Humanitarian Aid to Syrians

An extraordinary story has been unfolding in Israel.  If the Jewish State cannot fully implement the biblical injunction in Leviticus, "The stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as one born among you," it is fulfilling its moral imperative by providing humanitarian aid in its territory to Syrians, most of whom have been injured during the cruel civil war in their own country, with more than 130,000 killed and at least two million displaced.  Over 700 Syrians have been received by Israel, and they have undergone medical treatment within Israel itself.

The Syrians, among them adults, children, and fighters, are receiving that treatment in Israeli hospitals in Safed, Nahariya, Tiberius, and Haifa, as well as in the military field hospital on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights.  It is particularly ironic that the 230 Syrians currently being treated in Safed are receiving medical care in the Rebecca Sieff Hospital, named after the great feminist and Zionist leader who was the co-founder and president of the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO).  Another irony is the fact that the hospital now helping them was hit in 2006 by Katyusha rocket fire from Hezb'allah forces, presently strong allies of President Bashar Assad.  That attack damaged the infrastructure of the hospital and injured a number of people. 

Among the Syrian patients are fighters, some with serious battle wounds, who come from both sides in the civil war; some support the regime of President Assad, and others from the Free Syrian Army oppose it.  They are receiving complex treatment and surgery from Israeli doctors and nurses.  One can imagine the human drama and mixed feelings of the Syrian patients receiving this treatment from Israelis, whom the Arab states have categorized as citizens of the "Little Satan" and as Zionist oppressors.  One cannot expect them to become lovers of the Jewish state, but they may become less suspicious of Israel, perhaps appreciate its reality, and see Israelis as fellow humans with whom they can make peace.

The military field hospital on the Golan Heights provides preliminary treatment; if that treatment is successful, the medical staff can send the patients back across the border.  If it is not sufficient and they need more treatment, they are transferred to one of the civilian hospitals in northern and central Israel.  The military hospital is staffed by doctors/soldiers and has considerable equipment, including an operating theater.  It has been treating about 100 people a month.

Not all those being given medical treatment are war victims.  A number of Syrian women have crossed the border, have given birth in an Israeli hospital, and then returned to Syria.  One wonders if the children can technically be regarded as Israeli citizens.

A number of issues arise in relation to this situation.  One is that Israel can expect more Syrians to come to the border as the Syrian conflict continues, especially now that the Syrian regime has begun using more barrel bombs (containers filled with explosives) and employing indiscriminate tactics against civilians.  Israel faces a dilemma.  It is not altogether clear to Israelis where the patients come from, and it is even more unclear where they will or can go after treatment.  Some may hesitate to return to Syria and face the continuing danger of the fighting; some fear being regarded with suspicion as a result of have been in the enemy country of Israel and benefited from Israeli care.

The dilemma is obvious.  Should Israel help the Syrians who do not want to return or cannot return to their country after their successful treatment?  Can they be relocated to other countries?  Should Israel agree to asylum if requested?

Israeli law has some answers to these questions.  Laws declare that the nation should not return individuals to states where their lives are in danger.  Israel is also bound by the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees.  Article 1 of that Convention, as amended in the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as a person who fears being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and who is unable or fears to return to the country of origin.

Based on its laws, Israel has stated that it will consider requests for asylum.  However, so far only one application, by a woman, has been made.

Two observations can be made about this extraordinary situation.  One is to note the fact that the organizations and individuals who are automatically critical of Israeli actions are blind to the nation's humanitarian response.  Take for instance the attitude of the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR) group, which states that it is concerned with the protection and implementation of the right to health in Israel and the Palestinian territory.  While this is an admirable goal, PHR public statements suggest that the group is more concerned with what it sees as Israel's "prolonged occupation over Palestinian territory."

Like so many other organizations critical of Israel, this group appears to be incapable of taking yes for an answer.  In giving testimony on January 7, 2014 in Washington to a Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights, PHR made a number of recommendations.  Its main recommendation may be well-intentioned, but it shows its ignorance of what is happening on the ground.  PHR called on the United States to convene immediately a humanitarian summit to "facilitate negotiations with the Syrian regime that will guarantee the delivery of humanitarian assistance to impacted areas in Syria."  However, it did not say one word about the assistance that was already being provided by Israel and Israel's concern for the human rights of Syrians.  Is the quality of mercy of PHR being strained?

Even more striking is the contrast between Israel's aid to Syrians in need of medical care and the reluctance of United Nations officials to offer similar aid.  Though a contemplated, rather weak, resolution in the U.N. Security Council calls for the U.N. to press the Assad regime to allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas, this resolution does not call for sanctions or military action if Assad does not allow this.  Furthermore, the senior U.N. official in Damascus, Yacoub El Hillo, thought even this weak resolution was unwise and that its passage could lead to hostility between U.N. aid workers in Syria and the regime.  Apparently Mr. Hillo considers any international pressure for humanitarian aid to be "confrontational," even though there is global recognition that 7,000 people in the besieged areas in city of Homs need aid, and probably more than 250,000 in the country need food and medical treatment.

The medical personnel of Israel who have contributed to this humanitarian cause should be commended.  It is remarkable that there have been 40 years of peace between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights despite the fact the two countries are technically still at war, since Syria refused to sign an armistice agreement.  Some fighting has occurred from time to time, and Israel faces the threat of al-Qaeda groups near the border.

The threat of attack from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights makes the Israeli humanitarian activity all the more commendable.  Among other things, this behavior on the part of Israel ought to put to shame the bigoted and biased advocates of boycott of Israel.  Even Oxfam and Amnesty International and the European Union might pay attention to Israel's efforts to alleviate distress.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.

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