Amid chemical weapons attack fury, Israeli aid workers aim to help Syrian refugees

(DW)—–  Israeli political leaders this week joined the global community in condemning the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that there’s “no excuse for the deliberate attack on civilians,” adding that “the international community [should] fulfill its obligation to fully and finally remove these horrible weapons from Syria.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennet echoed Netanyahu’s call in his own tweet, writing that “children are choking to death. The world must act against the chemical massacre in Syria.” But for many in Israel, condemnation is not enough, and they are actively taking measures to try and help their neighbors.

“As a country, Israel is still considered controversial, so any official support might end up damaging the side Israel wants to help rather than benefiting it,” says Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Research Fellow at the Israeli think tank Forum for Regional Thinking. “Much better if Israel uses its influence on other governments to encourage intervention that will help civilians.”

Israel is already taking in wounded Syrians to its hospitals, but Tsurkov believes the country can do more. “There are more people who want to enter Israel than people who eventually get in,” she explains.

According to an Israeli security source, humanitarian help is more problematic than most Israelis realize. “Our problem is that the southern part of Syria, with which Israel has a mutual border, is populated with several Jihadist groups who are not interested in cooperation and will actively sabotage attempts to help.”

The source told DW that previous attempts didn’t only endanger Israelis, but risked the lives of Syrians who were revealed as collaborators, and “suffered consequences.” Direct Israeli aid could be problematic, Tsurkov agrees, but Israel can help anonymously or through other countries, like Jordan, as “southern Syria is experiencing some of the most difficult living conditions in the country.”

Private initiatives

Although the Syrian army has published a statement denying any use of chemical weapons, and despite Russia’s claim that a rebel “terrorist warehouse” was hit by a conventional airstrike, Israeli officials believe the attack on the rebel-held province of Idlib was approved by the highest ranks of the Assad regime.

With the death toll rising to 72, the chemical attack is now Syria’s deadliest since 2013.

“Ever since the battle of Aleppo there has been a reaction we haven’t seen in Israel in more than five years,” says Tamar Dressler, an Israeli journalist who’s also been an aid worker for 15 years and created the “Imagine Project” to help and support refugees.

Syrien Idlib Giftgasangriff (picture-alliance/ZUMA Wire/Syria Civil Defence)

Syria’s ‘White Helmets’ volunteer force has come to the aid of civilians in the country

“There are a lot of Israeli initiatives and a great will to help,” says Dressler. “One of our volunteers has organized a truck full of clothes to be transferred to Syria through UNICEF, another truck was sent to an Israeli hospital which treats wounded Syrians,” she explains.

But for her, the best thing to do is donate time, not clothing. Although many Israelis have donated clothes, tents and other elementary equipment, Dressler says she prefers to encourage local economies.

“We have to remember that countries like Greece are also going through crises. Accepting refugees in such scale is not easy, so we prefer to support these countries by buying local products, rather then sending garments from abroad.”

Most refugees don’t need another pair of pants or another bowl of rice, she says. “Other organizations take care of these needs. Most refugees need someone who will assist them to get back to their old lives, by teaching them some skills or helping them use their full potential in the destination country.”

Complicated relationship

Israel and Syria do not hold diplomatic relations and compassion between the two states is rare, especially as Israel has occupied the Golan Heights region since 1976.

It is hardly a surprise, then, that many Syrians and other nationals who end up in Greece’s refugee camps are hesitant to learn some of the aid workers are Israeli. Most of them only know Israel from the news, usually in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Once they get to know me, all the barriers are melting,” Dressler says. “There is no reason for Israelis to be afraid or to think refugees hate us.”

Syrien Detonationen nahe den Golanhöhen (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

The fighing in southern Syria has come within sight of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

For Maya Rimer, an Israeli group facilitator who volunteers in Dressler’s project, it was the realization of what is taking place just miles away from Israel’s border that affected many Israelis, regardless of their political or religious views.

“The fate of the Syrian people is something we can all relate to,” she says. “One reason is that the concept of being a refugee touches our most sensitive spots. It immediately reminds me of my grandma’s stories, for example, and how she fled Nuremberg during World War II.”

As a nation with a traumatic collective memory, “which is still very much present in our culture,” Rimer believes Israelis are very thinskinned to the horror Syrians are going through. “Specifically the sight of people being gassed by their regime is something that understandably makes us cringe.”

For Dressler, the most important thing is that the refugees will remember that at least someone along their journey cared for them.

“It’s enough that the refugees, coming not only from Syria by the way, will have someone who gave them English or sports classes, someone who saw them as individual humans and not just as mass migration – this could make a tremendous change,” she says. “This is the right thing to do now, and this is our time to do it.”

Yohannes Torres

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