Opinion |

The Cruel Similarities Between Israel’s Occupation and Assad’s Regime

I live under Israeli occupation, and I was a passionate supporter of Bashar Assad, the 'Messiah of the Resistance.' Now I realize you can’t oppose Israel’s occupation and support Assad’s tyranny: it’s the same fight

Wesam Sharaf
Wesam Sharaf
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Pro-Syrian regime protester waves a Syrian flag as he stands in front of portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Damascus, Syria, December 2, 2011
Pro-Syrian regime protester waves a Syrian flag as he stands in front of portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Damascus, Syria, December 2, 2011Credit: AP
Wesam Sharaf
Wesam Sharaf

I was born and raised in the occupied Golan Heights. Neglected, marginal, I made sure to participate in every protest, every anniversary, held to condemn the Israeli occupation.

My personal engagement in opposing Israel's rule was deepened by my ethnic and cultural attachment to Syria, from whose control the Golan was wrested by Israel in 1967. Syria's Ba'ath Party made sure to invest in this dynamic, but also to ensure that our Syrian nationalism was firmly directed towards support for the Assad family's rule. That we would identify with the totalitarian regime that has ruled Syria since 1963.

Thanks to their intensive efforts, always particularly directed at minorities like my own Druze community, I firmly believed that the all-embracing Ba'ath controlled not only our corner of the globe but also space and the galaxies beyond. I believed our Druze redemption would come from the east. Supporting the Assad regime was – and still is and will be - mainstream opinion in the occupied Golan Heights, and I was one passionate supporter.

Syrian army soldier watches the soccer World Cup final at a checkpoint in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, Syria. July 15, 2018. Arabic sign in red reads: "And Assad has won.”Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

In 2011, after the Syrian uprising broke out, my endorsement of Bashar Assad's regime strengthened. I favored him staying in power. I was 18, naïve, and in love with his agenda of resistance for which he was the messenger and Messiah.

"We will win against the enemies of our nation." "This uprising is all a foreign conspiracy against Syria and the resistance." These two ideas formed the core of every Ba'ath government speech. The strategy was clear: Mark the protesters as terrorists, label free politicians as traitors, create a climate of fear and insecurity, prove that only harsh military action would subdue the "enemies of our nation."

Back then, I had no doubts about the worthiness of my admiration of Assad's regime. But still, some of these claims and tactics sounded strangely familiar to me.

When my views matured, and I fell out of love with the Ba'ath agenda, I realized why I had heard echoes in that rhetoric. They mirrored Israel's justifications for its oppressive military actions: "Fighting terror," "evicting [Palestinian] civilians on security grounds." "Fighting anti-Semitic enemy organizations who want to wipe Israel off the map."

Whenever I hear the claims that Israel provides to justify its actions against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and its violation of Lebanon's and Syria's sovereignty, I immediately recall Assad's regime justifications for its military actions against the rebels and rebel-held civilian society. This might sound shocking, but let's see how the comparison bears out.

Demonizing Arabs has long been Israel's agenda; the military regime in the occupied territories marks every Palestinian as a suspect unless proven otherwise. The mechanism of administrative detention - incarceration without trial or charge, on the suspicion that someone plans to commit a future offense – means a Palestinian doesn't even have to be guilty of any proven act to be locked up, indefinitely.

A general view of a deserted and damaged street filled with debris in Homs March 9, 2014.Credit: Reuters

The same applies to entire neighboring states; For example, Israel claims Hezbollah, not the Lebanese army, holds active control over Lebanon and thus labels Lebanon as a "terror-held" state. With that claim, Israel declared it considers the whole of Lebanon as a legitimate military target, according to International law.

The Ba'ath regime has pushed the same demonizing process throughout the last seven years of fighting. Syrian state media and its shills have marked protesters as "savages" in 2011, and later, all protesters, including the moderate rebels, as al-Qaeda or ISIS terrorists. That narrative helped build Assad's alliance with Russia.

Israel's "war on terror", along with "Assad and Putin fighting ISIS terrorists," legitimates in the eyes of those respective governments disproportionate killing, collective punishment, the use of forbidden or indiscriminately harmful weapons, and mass transfer against the societies they have already demonized.

For a closer look, we need to go back to April 18th 2011. It was the very beginning of the Syrian uprising; thousands of protesters marched towards Al-Sa'ah square in Homs, demanding liberty, civil rights, and dignity.

After hours of protests, at a few minutes before midnight, Syrian regime soldiers opened fire towards the protesters, killing and injuring an undisclosed number, capturing the bodies of those who fallen, and arresting thousands. The shooting started after seven hours of protest; it was clearly premeditated.

I see no difference between this act of violence and events that took place two months later, on June 15th, 2011, at the Golan Heights border. At a protest commemorating the 1967 war, Israeli snipers shot 23 Palestinians dead while they marched towards the 1974 ceasefire line.

Palestinian protesters run for cover after Israeli forces launched tear gas canisters during a demonstration along the Israel-Gaza border, June 22, 2018.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

This scene was repeated in the events of the recent Gaza March of Return, in which protesters demanding basic liberty and freedom marched towards the border, and the Israeli army opened fire. More than 120 were killed and more than 10,000 protesters injured.

Again, Israel's actions were premeditated: the Israeli army spokesman made public statements before the march began, stating that they would be met by force.

Living in Gaza is the same as living in the besieged Yarmouk camp outside Damascus. The Israeli and Syrian governments may be inherently different, but, their practice against what they call "enemies of the state" or "terrorists" is almost identical. The punishments they apply are aimed at destroying millions of people's search for basic rights and freedom.

Recently, PM Netanyahu stated that as part of a putative 'grand bargain' between Israel, Russia and the U.S. to distance Iran from the Golan, Israel would no longer challenge Assad remaining in power. I wasn't shocked by this public endorsement: I had no expectations that Israel would oppose Assad's totalitarian regime on the grounds of human rights violations Israel itself systematically transgresses.

I was once a supporter of Assad's regime. Ironically, it was thanks to the experience of living under Israeli occupation and its military regime that I understood, eventually, that I should relate the exact same way to Assad’s rule in Syria.

Wesam Sharaf has just graduated from the University of Haifa, Faculty of Law

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