Just over two years ago, on the 15th of May 2011 (‘Nakba Day’), and again on the 5th of June (‘Naksa Day’), hundreds of Syrians rioted at the Syrian-Israeli border. Some broke through the border fence into Israel, and rioted violently against the IDF, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
The IDF first shouted warnings telling them not to proceed, then used tear gas when they were ignored. When that didn’t work they fired warning shots in the air, but eventually had to open fire, aiming at the rioters’ lower bodies. In one case, a Syrian confessed to being shot in the legs after he tried to kidnap an Israeli soldier. Some of the casualties were caused by rioters starting a fire by throwing Molotov cocktails, which then set off land mines in the area.
This all took place just a couple of months after the uprising had begun in Syria; at that point there had been around 1000 deaths, so of course this was a welcome distraction to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian Reform Party claimed the 5th of June protesters were poor farmers who’d been paid $1,000 by Assad’s regime to riot, who’d apparently also promised $10,000 to the families of anyone killed; all to distract world attention away from his slaughter of those protesting against him.
It turned out that among the protesters were also some civilians who were just taking an opportunity to try to escape Assad’s regime, with one saying: “I’m tired of living in Syria…We’ve crossed the border in order to stay with our families, away from all the killing in Syria. We ask the powers that be in Israel to help us stay and not send us back.”
Two years later… and the UN have confirmed 93,000 Syrian deaths in the civil war, yet the situation on the border with Israel hasn’t changed that much.
Israel’s response to any situation like this typically has two sides. First, self-defence mode. Israel has no interest in getting involved in anyone else’s conflict, but will do whatever it takes to protect its citizens, and will act with force where necessary – like with last month’s bombing of weapons targets to prevent Syria from transferring weapons to Hezbollah.
The second side: humanitarian. You would expect no less from Israel – the country that warns its enemies in advance of attacks on weapons depots and treats injured terrorists once they’ve been disarmed, not to mention the aid Israel has provided globally – than to build a field hospital on the Israeli-Syrian border. For months Israel has been treating injured Syrians who need aid, whether they are involved in the fighting or more importantly, if they are innocent civilians who got caught up in the war. IDF soldiers and medics at the border, and those transferring and treating the Syrians are doing all of this at their own risk. A couple of weeks ago the emergency room and trauma unit at the Ziv Medical Centre in Tzefat had to be evacuated, after an injured rebel fighter was found to have a live grenade in his pocket.
But whilst Assad may be trying to unite Syrians against Israel, some Syrians at least seem to be catching on to what the real Israel is like. Last week another patient transferred to the Ziv Medical Centre was found with a Syrian doctor’s handwritten note attached to his clothing. The note outlined in Arabic the surgery and medical care he’d had for a gunshot to the chest and shrapnel wounds; and asked for Israel to save his life because Syrian doctors weren’t equipped to provide the necessary treatment.
Then there is the story of the four year old Syrian girl who was brought to Israel for heart surgery. She was treated by Shevet Achim and Save A Child’s Heart, two Israeli charities that treat children of all nationalities with heart problems, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford treatment. The day after the girl returned to Syria following her treatment, a visa request for another Syrian child was submitted.
Accusations and speculation about whose “side” Israel is on are irrelevant – there are pros and cons whoever emerges stronger. The concern is that any weapons supplied to Syrians could end up in the hands of extremists who might use them against Israel – two years ago we were lucky that the Syrians who rioted and broke through the border fence were not armed.
However it all plays out, the only response from Israel that is an absolute certainty, is saving lives and providing aid to victims of the war who need it.