When an Israeli trained Syrians to clear landmines
A recent exchange of life-saving knowledge bypassed long-held hatreds and demonstrated the potential benefits of peace
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The aftermath of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria saw the heroism of Israeli rescue teams, who saved dozens of lives through quick and selfless action, as well as the nihilism of the Assad regime, which chose to see its own people die rather than receive assistance from “the Zionist entity.”
Where Syrians win a measure of freedom from that tyranny, they tend to choose partnership with Israelis.
A few months before the earthquake, the Arab Council for Regional Integration, a civil movement supported by the Center for Peace Communications whose Syria chapter I lead, organized a knowledge transfer operation in the country’s autonomous northeast — the one part of Syria that is free of both jihadist and Iranian domination. We brought Israeli expertise to bear on two dire problems the territory faces. In so doing, we delivered tangible evidence of the benefits of a peace between peoples and showed that more is possible.
By way of context, hundreds of civilians in the northeast are killed or wounded each year by landmines, which number in the thousands. Some were planted by the regime and others by ISIS in a series of scorched earth campaigns. As to the minority of land that can be safely cultivated, it suffers from longterm desertification — due to drought and decades of neglect by a predatory central government.
To address these problems, we convened Syrian Arab and Kurdish engineering students in the northeast town of Qamishle for a 35-hour remote learning course, through which they acquired software and hardware design skills to construct two smart devices out of a low-cost circuitboard. Their teacher, beamed into the classroom via Zoom, was Majd Thabet, a Druze citizen of northern Israel.
Thabet showed students how to build remote-controlled rovers, equipped with sensors and a camera, which can survey swaths of territory and pinpoint landmines for removal. Designed to save lives and render territory accessible again, the vehicles cost less than $100 each to build. In a meaningful sign of local buy-in, Syrians in the area are using their own resources to acquire the equipment.
Thabet also taught the Syrians to repurpose the same circuitboard and sensors to measure and regulate ambient light, humidity, and temperature in an enclosed space. Thus reprogrammed, the device can convert the many greenhouses locals have built into “smart greenhouses,” optimizing the climate for a given crop and thereby boosting yields.
“It was a dream come true,” the Israeli instructor said of the experience. “We see the problems [in Syria] and always wonder … how can we assist these people who are just like us? Then this opportunity came. At the beginning, I was a little nervous: What will they think of me? It turned out to be quite natural; we can talk, engage, and work together, because we share the same goals.”
For generations, Syrians have been indoctrinated to hate Israel, taught that it is a “usurping entity” bent on exploiting and harming its Arab neighbors. But this propaganda apparently had not penetrated the Syrian engineering student who organized the class, nor the peers he invited to participate. “Our friends and colleagues wholeheartedly supported the idea,” he said. “It was a great experience and it benefited us.” An administrator at nearby Rojava University who observed the class called for further cooperation to develop her institution. “Where another country or university has the capacity to help us,” she said, “we can achieve a higher quality of instruction, both in terms of the ideas we learn and how effectively we put them to use.”
Syria’s autonomous northeast is one of numerous sub-state enclaves, from Libya to Yemen, where new forms of engagement have become possible between for the sake of development. Where locals choose to engage Israelis, it behooves the Abraham Accords states as well as their Western allies to facilitate and enhance the connectivity.
The Arab Council is committed not only to organizing such partnerships but also to raising awareness of them throughout the region in order to counter opponents of peace. To those who incite against Israeli-Arab cooperation, we say, who was it who planted the landmines — and who is it who now strives to remove them and rejuvenate the territory? Until the day it becomes unnecessary to even pose such questions, we will do everything we can to elicit them.
About the Author
Ahed al-Hindi is a member of the Executive Committee of the Arab Council for Regional Integration.