Israeli Defense Chief Met With Syrian Operatives During Civil War, Top Retired IDF General Says

Israel has denied any connection to fighting there since it broke out seven years ago

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon meet with wounded Syrians, 2014.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen, a former IDF General Staff Corps commander, said this week that former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon met during his tenure with Syrian operatives during the war between the Assad regime and the rebels. Since the civil war in Syria broke out, Israel has denied any connection to what was going on there or that it had taken a side. Hacohen says he was present during the meeting.

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“When I was commanding a corps in the Golan and Bogie [Ya’alon] was defense minister, we sat with three Syrian activists from the other side, from Syria,” Hacohen said at an Israel Democracy Institute conference. “They came and Bogie wanted to understand who they were. He asked one of them, ‘Tell me, are you a Salafist?’ And he said, ‘I really don’t know what a Salafist is. If it means that I pray more, then yes. Once I would pray once a week, on Fridays, now I pray five times a day. On the other hand, a Salafist isn’t meant to cooperate with the Zionists. I’m sitting with the defense minister of the Zionists. So I don’t know.’ This means that identity components are very fluid. They don’t tell you where the person is going.”

Syrian rebels in the Hama district in 2016.
KHALIL ASHAWI/Reuters

Hacohen didn’t say when the meeting took place, but Ya’alon was named defense minister in March 2013 and Hacohen retired from the army in September 2014.

In the summer of 2016, Israel acknowledged that it was providing civil assistance to Syrian villages near the border, through what was known as the Good Neighbor Administration, which was closed this week.

During the IDI conference, findings of a survey were presented showing a correlation between religious belief and support for tough steps, including physical harm, against enemy civilians. According to Hacohen, the meeting that he had showed that “the way people perceive their religious faith can change.”