As Arab Migrants Swamp Europe, Israel Also Needs to Take Stock

Analysis | Israel is not impervious to the repercussions of the Middle Eastern refugee wave.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Syrian refugees wait at the barbed wire fence, on the border between Hungary from Serbia, near Roszke, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015.
Syrian refugees wait at the barbed wire fence, on the border between Hungary from Serbia, near Roszke, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The picture of the tiny corpse of the 3-year-old Kurdish child that washed up on the beach in the hands of a Turkish policeman; the scenes of the thousands of refugees crowding into the Budapest train station requesting in vain permission to transit into Germany; the truck abandoned by the roadside in Austria and inside it the corpses of scores of people who had fled the horrors of the civil war in Syria – all these tell the same story: In the waning days of this summer the Middle East has come for a visit to Europe. And together with the refugees and survivors of the many crises and conflicts in Africa that barely get a small percentage of the international attention paid to the wars in the Arab world, it has no intention of going anywhere else.

It appears there is no longer any point in spreading apocalyptic scenarios along the lines of the plot of Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Submission,” but it is already clear that things are never again going to be what they used to be. After nearly five years of atrocities, the huge upheaval in the Arab countries is no longer closed in a box, its external repercussions limited. Just as the slaughter that is happening daily in Syria and Iraq radiates onto the neighboring countries, among them Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which are inundated with waves of refugees, so hundreds and thousands more are fleeing to Europe, the promised continent.

Migrants cross the border from Greece to Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni on August 29, 2015. The EU is dealing with an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty. Credit: AFP

The system in most of the Arab countries can no longer deal with their own subjects (about citizens, the improvement of whose rights was at the focus of the struggle when the upheaval began toward the end of 2010, hardly anyone is talking now). It cannot deal with their most basic needs.

When an ecosystem collapses, strong shock waves reverberate in more distant circles as well, and there is also a price to pay in the well-fed European countries. The refugees are arriving en masse, for a wealth of reasons: In Syria nearly half the population has been forced to leave their homes and about a quarter of the population has left the country entirely. To the minorities – Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and others – who are fleeing from Syria and Iraq are added Sunnis who have been expelled from their homes by loyalists of Syrian President Bashar Assad or have been caught in the pincer of pressures between the regime’s terrible bombardments and the systematic sadism perpetrated by the Islamic State organization.

The sights from the cities of Syria are beginning to look like the pictures of destruction in the cities of Europe at the end of World War II. Water, sewage and electricity systems are collapsing, as are education and welfare services. The latest reports from Syria about military units and combat aircraft coming in from Russia to help the regime only presage that the war will continue for much longer and will become even more brutal. It is no wonder that the citizens are losing hope.

Another wave of immigration is coming from Afghanistan and even the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, mainly for economic reasons.

About three years ago, in the wake of the toppling of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, European countries began training and funding the Libyan coast guard in the hope it would serve as a barrier between them and the refugees from Africa who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The coast guard, like all of Libya, collapsed and now tens of thousands from all over Africa are crossing the Mediterranean, in every possible vessel. Among the unfortunates who drowned in the sea in the past two years were also hundreds who tried to leave the Gaza Strip, before and after the last war between Israel and Hamas.

Up to 50 migrant bodies were found in a truck on the side of an Austrian highway. (August 27, 2015)Credit: AP

Within this huge uproar, most of the time Israel is continuing to maintain a kind of security bubble. The number of live-fire incidents along the borders has indeed increased somewhat, but it seems that the Israeli citizen hardly feels the repercussions of the upheaval all around him. All is quiet at the eye of the storm.

And even if the threat of the Iranian atom has been pushed to a lower position on the international agenda, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s disgruntlement, there is also a positive aspect in his view: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks at the moment like a marginal issue for the international community, which addresses it only when a larger crisis erupts. Moreover, the international community no longer sees it as the main reason for the bleak situation of the Middle East, and above all has despaired of pinning hope on the sides’ good intentions (even though it does place most of the blame on Israel).

Migrants try to board a train at the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Credit: AP

The waves of refugees in the region, and alongside them the increased activity of the jihadist organizations along Israel’s borders, are expected to encourage Netanyahu to retrieve from the mothballs the old plan to surround the country with high fences and intelligence and surveillance systems. Possibly some of the tax collection surplus will be directed toward this aim.

The construction of the fence along the Egyptian border, which was completed more than two years ago, reflected an accurate strategic analysis on the prime minister’s part. In the future he will want to accelerate construction of a fence along the Jordanian border. At this stage, the security establishment is preparing to build a fence only in the southernmost section of the border, along 30 kilometers from Eilat northwards, which will protect the new airport going up at Timna.

Though the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan appears stable today, the concern for its future in the face of Islamic State pressures and the refugees necessitate broad attention by decision-makers in Israel. On the terror front, Israel is concerned about the movement of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees southward to work on farms on the Jordanian side of the Jordan Valley, for fear they will be infiltrated by terror activists.

Moreover, in recent weeks a new regional concern has cropped up: It turns out that three million citizens have fled from Yemen on the backdrop of the war that is raging there, and they are now moving northwards, to Saudi Arabia and thence perhaps also to Jordan. Possibly this trend will be depicted as another reason compelling accelerated closure of the Jordanian border in the near future.

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