Israeli Arab Party Backs Assad Regime's Takeover of Aleppo, Drawing Outcry

Lawmakers from Hadash insist they don’t support the Assad regime but condemn the 'terror groups' who they accuse of tearing Syria apart.

Boys eat bread as they wait to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, December 16, 2016.
Abdalrhman Ismail, Reuters

The Arab-Jewish Hadash party caused a stir Friday after it released a statement supporting the Assad regime's retaking of Aleppo.

Wresting "Aleppo from the hands of terrorist groups is a turning point in the effort to thwart the imperialist and reactionary offensive on the people of the region," the left-wing party said. 

"The unification of Aleppo brings an end to the plans to divide Syria, and is a manifestation of the failure of the American, Turkish, Saudi and Qatari strategies, as well as of their inability to protect the terror groups that destroyed Syria and sowed terror among the civilians."

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Hadash and Joint List parties, speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015.
Bloomberg

The statement, which was posted on the party's Facebook page, was signed by Adal Amar, the chairman of the Communist Party faction within Hadash, known as Maki. Hadash itself is part of the Joint List, an alliance of four predominantly Arab parties.

Ayman Odeh, leader of Hadash and head of the Joint List, is not affiliated with the Communist faction. He argued against taking the side of the rebels, whose efforts had been hijacked by groups like the Islamic State, he said.

The tragedy of the Syrian civil war has its origins in the decades of dictatorial rule in Syria, which has spawned "a popular battle for democracy that any person of conscience and morality needs to support," he said.

But "this battle has been hijacked by groups of uncivilized people like the Nusra Front and ISIS, so it is not humane to take the side of those forces of darkness." Calling for an immediate halt to "the crimes being committed there," he said he supports a "democratic, independent and united Syria" free of foreign control.

Claims of hypocrisy

The Hadash statement drew an outcry on social media among leftist activists and Joint List supporters. One activist, Noam Sheizaf, wrote on Twitter that the statement "casts a terrible shadow on all the party's supporters and voters."

Amar told Haaretz that he stands behind his statement and rejects any attempt to misconstrue his remarks as an expression of support for war crimes.

"We have never justified war crimes and never said that we support attacks on civilians," he said. "We are against any such action, regardless of who is behind it."

He said criticism of the Communist Party was hypocritical.

"Where was the criticism when terror groups took over Aleppo and other cities in Syria and slaughtered people? Attacks on civilians were above all carried out by these terror groups," he said.

Amar denied claims that he supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. "We haven't expressed support for one regime or another," he said. "We support the unification of Syria, and the Syrian people will be the ones to decide its future."

Hadash activists told Haaretz that the angry response on social media reflected the party's internal struggle between radical and moderate leaders. 

MK Dov Khenin of the Maki faction said he would express himself within the party. But he told Haaretz that his objection to "jihadists and their supporters in the Gulf, Turkey and outside the region doesn't constitute support for the Syrian regime." According to Khenin, "intentional attacks on civilians are a war crime, whether they are perpetrated by jihadi groups or by the Syrian regime."

The head of the left-wing Meretz party, Zehava Galon, criticized the Communist Party, saying the "constant support of senior Maki officials for Assad and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a stain on that party almost as Aleppo itself is a frightening stain on the world's conscience and a terrible failure by the international community."

Galon, who noted Israel's frequent deployment of rescue teams in disaster areas, said "the government could certainly invest more in supporting refugees fleeing the hell in Aleppo."

The Syrian army’s advance in Aleppo drew a sharp response among Israeli Arabs on social media. Supporters of the rebel militias, including radical Islamist groups, see Assad as a dictator destroying his country in order to stay in power.

Divided society

The controversy within Hadash and Maki is part of a broader disagreement in Arab society over events in the Syrian civil war. But the events in Aleppo in recent weeks generated particularly harsh exchanges on social media.

Dr. Mohanad Mustafa, a lecturer in political science and a researcher of Arab society  at the Center for Academic Studies, Or Yehuda told Haaretz that division of Arab society in Israel has manifest itself more openly since the events of the so-called Arab spring, especially events in Syria. According to him, Israeli Arab society mirrors the rifts found in the wider Arab world, and a clash there has led to a clash here. This tension has taken the form of a heated debate about Aleppo in recent weeks, because Syria is considered one of the most contentious issues in Arab society. Maki’s statement has contributed to debate and growing polarization.

“It must be remembered that the event in Aleppo are not an ordinary political or diplomatic event; it is a traumatic event involving murder and the destruction of a historic city, and so to my mind, such a statement only sharpens debate and polarization and weakens Arab society morally speaking,” Mustafa said.

Hadash and Maki activists conceded to Haaretz that reactions to events in Aleppo, including the Amar’s Facebook post, have led to many arguments in the party and criticism of the statements. “There is a serious internal dispute both over wording and how to publish it, and there is no doubt that the debates over Syria within the party has come out and we have to discuss them,” an activist said. However, she called some of the criticism of the party by other parties hypocritical and stemming from a need to goad the party.

The debate over Syria is an ideological one, whether it involves Hadash and Maki versus the Islamic Movement or the Balad party, all now part of the Joint Arab List, with its nationalist Palestinian perspective. This is the case although all three parties reject, for example, the policies of the United States and the West in general toward the Arab world. But interpretations of events, particularly in Syria, manifest themselves in a manner that seems very complex to Jewish Israelis, who sometimes have a hard time finding logic in them.
 

Jonathan Lis contributed reporting.