Opinion

Should Israel Open Its Borders to Desperate Syrian Refugees?

Thousands of Syrians, fleeing Assad's airstrikes, are taking refuge on Israel's northern border. Israel must base its response not only on its national security interests, but on the moral imperative to aid desperate people on our doorstep

Internally displaced people from Deraa province ride on a back of a truck near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Quneitra, Syria June 30, 2018
\ ALAA AL-FAQIR/ REUTERS

For a full week now, the Syrian regime - together with its Russian and Shi'ite militia allies - have embarked on an offensive to retake rebel-held southern Syria. 

This is a battle Israel cannot ignore.

Israel has watched as a major influx of displaced people escaping the Assad regime's relentless bombardments mass on its border on the Golan Heights.

According to the UN, by the middle of last week, the Daraa campaign had already left at least 45,000 people internally displaced.

>> Syrians Fleeing Assad Regime Airstrikes Reach Israeli Border: 'It's the Safest Place to Be'

While most of those have fled toward the border with Jordan, an estimated 11,000 have taken refuge on the border with Israel, on the Golan Heights. That's an unexpected development, bearing in mind the long history of Syria regarding Israel as its arch enemy.

Since 2013, some 5800 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals in northern Israel. Since 2017, approximately 6000 Syrians have been treated in a field hospital established by Israel and operating in an abandoned IDF position on the border with Syria and operated by an American NGO. These activities combined with the transfer of thousands of tons of humanitarian goods, medicine, clothes and food have been called by the IDF "Operation Good Neighbor.

Internally displaced people from Deraa province arrive near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Quneitra, Syria June 29, 2018
\ ALAA AL-FAQIR/ REUTERS

The question that the current events raise is: What must Israel do?

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted on Friday that though Israel is willing to continue transferring humanitarian goods, not one Syrian refugee will be permitted to enter Israel.

Jordan, according to the United Nations refugee agency, already hosts 660,000refugees; it closed its borders two years ago and continues to maintain that policy, despite calls and a robust Jordanian social media campaign calling on the government to #OpenTheBorder.

Meanwhile the IDF announced Friday that six Syrians, including four children, were transferred to Israeli hospitals for medical assistance. And that 300 tents, thirteen tons of food, 15 tons of baby food, 30 tons of clothes, medical supplies and medicines had been transferred to people in need on the Syrian Golan Heights.

>>One Day, We Israelis Will Revisit the Time Our Syrian Neighbors Were Being Slaughtered - and Ask Why We Did Nothing>>

Our compassion can not only be at a distance. Our neighbors in Syria have endured, and are still enduring, a devastating civil war, and while Israel has been considered Syria's mortal enemy since 1973, our humanitarian gestures must be broadened.  

While Lieberman’s zero refugee policy is morally questionable, the reasoning behind it may be reports in Israel last week citing intelligence sources suggesting Iran is trying to abuse operation Good Neighbor to infiltrate terrorists into Israel.

Israel should make exceptions to its "no entry" policy for refugees, especially orphaned children who are in dire need.

Israeli soldiers close a border gate after a U.N. vehicle crossed into an area near the Druze village of Khader in Syria, seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. June 21, 2015
אי־פי

But if Israel is unwilling to permit refugees to enter its territory, the government now needs to establish a safe zone on the eastern side of the border.

On the international front, the success of a safe zone for displaced Syrians will only be successful if it can truly be safe. Russia alone can secure the required assurances that Assad’s troops and its militias keep at a safe distance. The IDF will have to protect the people that flee to the sanctuary, supply food, shelter, sanitation and medical aid.

Israel must also appeal to UNDOF (the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force), the UN peacekeeping force to review its mandate. UNDOF was established in 1974 to monitor and supervise the ceasefire between Israel and Syria that ended the Yom Kippur War. In the absurd reality of the Middle East, that is what they continue to do today. There are over 1000 deployed UN personnel that could immediately assist the people in need. However, since the Syrian civil war began, UNDOF has vacated most of its observer camps in the Syrian Golan Heights.

Israel's strategic and national security interests in Syria remain the same. No Iran in Syria, and as far away as possible. Israel must maintain its operational access to thwart Iran’s intentions - setting up a forward operating base on our doorstep.

However, our moral interests are just as important. We must send a clear message of an outstretched hand to people in need.

Since the State of Israel was established, we’ve sent aid and search and rescue missions to every continent to address dire humanitarian situations. We must do the same for the desperate people on our doorstep.

Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Peter Lerner is a crisis communications consultant. He served for 25 years in the IDF as a spokesperson and a liaison officer to international organizations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Twitter: @LTCPeterLerner