The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria employed chemical weapons against its own citizens again last week. It’s hard to imagine that the atrocities in Syria could be any worse. Indeed, it is chilling to imagine what Syrian forces would be doing right now had Israel not neutralized that country’s nuclear capabilities in 2007.
Despite the horrific images coming out of Syria, much of the world’s attention, including that of the United Nations, was focused on Israel’s response to rallies on the Gaza border. It was striking to hear the outrage about Israel’s reaction to the Gaza events while a few hundred kilometres away the most atrocious acts were being perpetrated on a people by their own government. That said, the loss of life in Gaza is startling and we hope that the Israel Defence Forces can find non-lethal ways to defend against the protesters.
At the same time, it has been difficult not to be frustrated about the placement of blame. Portrayed by apologists as a peaceful rally – the so-called March for Return – the Friday events, for the second consecutive week, were a violent assault on the Israeli border. The planned action featured Gazans burning hundreds of tires in order to obscure the visibility of IDF soldiers. While tallying up the number of dead – 26 have been killed, according to the Associated Press Monday – it’s clear that the associations of some of the dead have been lost on most audiences, as at least 10 have been reported to be known combatants in the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Islamic Jihad and Hamas’ terrorist wings.
On Friday, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yehya Al-Sinwar, was employing what outside observers will likely dismiss as flowery rhetoric for domestic audiences when he exclaimed on Al-Jazeera that “We will take down the border [with Israel] and tear out their hearts from their bodies.”
Whether the actions of the IDF are deemed justified, the Diaspora community must continue to press for a non-military solution where possible and demand that the IDF remain restrained when demonstrators are unarmed. With a video surfacing that allegedly shows an IDF sniper shooting an unarmed Palestinian man while other soldiers cheer, there are calls for an investigation within Israel from across the political spectrum. As one Israeli politician said in the Times of Israel, “The battle isn’t just between us and Hamas; it is also for ourselves, for our values and for the identity of Israel society.”
It was, however, a leading figure in the Fatah government of Mahmoud Abbas, which runs the West Bank, who pointed out what should be obvious to the world. Dr. Mahmoud Habbash, a supreme judge in the Palestinian Authority Islamic court and Abbas’s adviser on religious and Islamic affairs, accused Hamas of “trading in suffering and blood, trading in victims” to get sympathetic headlines worldwide.
It seems to be working. “Solidarity” marches around the world included chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will soon be free.”
Against this backdrop, it may seem odd to raise the issue of Israel’s treatment of African refugees. As a Jewish newspaper, we feel it is our obligation to defend Israel from unjust accusations and attacks, and it is our duty also to condemn actions by Israeli governments or others that betray what we believe to be the just course.
Last week’s flip-flop by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a disgrace and an insult to the values on which Israel prides itself.
A week ago Monday, Netanyahu announced an agreement with a United Nations refugee agency to alleviate a conflict about what to do with 38,000 African asylum-seekers currently in legal limbo in Israel by relocating about half of them to Western countries, including Canada. The next day, after getting pushback from right-wing members of his coalition and some aggressive residents of south Tel Aviv (where most of the migrants live) who want few or no migrants to remain in Israel, the prime minister reneged on the deal, seeking again to eject all 38,000.
As we have said in this space previously, it is ludicrous to suggest that 38,000 Africans – or half that – threaten the Jewish nature of the state. Neither, contrary to Netanyahu’s allegations, would the acceptance of these refugees – who fled violence and war – create a precedent.
If Israel wants to create a situation where it can avoid unwanted refugees while ensuring that it meets the obligations of a democratic state, it must develop the systems to appropriately adjudicate refugee claims. At present, situations like this – affecting the lives of 38,000 individuals – are being addressed arbitrarily and inappropriately. Israel, like Canada, Germany and other democracies, needs to have a standard by which the world’s homeless, who happen to find temporary refuge within its borders, are assessed and treated fairly within clearly defined legal parameters that recognize both the rights of individual non-citizens and the necessities of Israel, from the perspective of both the security of its citizens and the Jewish nature of the state. These are not incompatible objectives.
There is no shortage of challenges facing the Middle East. The situations in Gaza and Syria seem intractable. The fate of 38,000 migrants should not be so difficult to resolve.