Opinion

Not Just for the Sake of Syrians, but for Our Sake

Precisely the Arabs in Israel, who are fighting discrimination and oppression, must not stutter when it comes to the injustices perpetrated across the border

A Palestinian supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) holds a banner bearing the colours of the Palestinian and Syrian flags alongsinde a portrait of the Syrian president as they demonstrate in the centre of the West Bank city of Nablus against US air strikes on Syria.
JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

What can the Arabs in Israel do for their Syrian brethren? They have no army, no diplomatic clout, no logistical capabilities that could allow them to offer civilian support. The only thing that remains is moral support – words. “You have neither horses nor treasure to give so let the words rejoice if circumstances be grim,” said the poet Al-Mutanabbi. But the Arab leadership in Israel has failed in the realm of words as well.

The truth is that even if the Arabs in Israel manage to give verbal support to Syria’s citizens, that will not change the balance of power at all between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, or between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s murderers and the fanatics backed by Qatar. In the situation we’re in, the battle over what position should be taken toward Syria is a battle over the moral image of Arab society in Israel, over its attitude toward the terrible massacre going on across the border.

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And if in the hard days of the chemical-weapons assault on Khan Sheikhoun almost none of the leaders of Arab society in Israel saw fit to condemn the Syrian regime, that’s cause for concern. Even those who did condemn it, by the way, did so weakly, to the point where it could not be said whether the statements were condemnation or commentary.

Condemnation of Assad produces furious responses from his supporters, as if he were Mother Theresa, censured out of nowhere. But Assad was part of a bloody regime even before the appearance of ISIS and the Nusra Front. On June 26, 1980, when Hafez Assad waited on the steps of the presidential palace to welcome an African guest, two bombs were thrown at him, miraculously missing their target. Revenge was quick to follow. The next day, June 27, at dawn, a group of some 60 soldiers, led by Muin Nassif, deputy of Rifaat Assad, the president’s brother, boarded helicopters and flew to the Tadmor Prison in the heart of the desert. There, the soldiers broke up into smaller groups and opened fire on the prisoners locked in their cells. Five hundred prisoners were murdered in cold blood. That story appears in Patrick Seale’s biography of the senior Assad.

This is a regime capable of great cruelty, and not only toward those it considers enemies. Seale tells about a day, March 30, 1984, when brothers Rifaat and Hafez almost turned against each other militarily. The tanks of the two sides stood at the entrance to Damascus and waited for a signal. Hafez had the upper hand, and Rifaat went into exile abroad. In Syria, there is no other voice than that of the leader.

In contrast, to people who argue passionately with me about the danger of the fanatic movements, I say: Who says the choice is between Assad and ISIS? If you check closely, you’ll see that one feeds the other. The fanatics take advantage of the regime’s crimes to bring the victims over to their dark side, and Assad tries to persuade the world that he is the last bastion against fanaticism.

So I have a suggestion: Call constantly on your conscience and your humanity. Don’t excuse a crime by citing the need to prevent another crime, and don’t choose one evil because there is another evil. What’s more, we, looking on from afar, have the luxury of condemning both evils.

The trend these days is to say that anyone who criticizes Assad is a Trump supporter. But who invited all the evil ones in the world into its vineyard if not the heartless dictatorship of Assad, which cannot show flexibility or negotiate with the opposition? And if we’re talking Trump, what about Putin? What about Iran?

And so precisely the Arabs in Israel, who are fighting discrimination and oppression and for the liberation of their people from occupation, must not stutter when it comes to the injustices perpetrated across the border.

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