A rare public meeting between Israelis and Syrians in Jerusalem on Tuesday was interrupted by Palestinian protesters who expressed outrage that Syrians would work with Israelis. The protesters met with a furious response from the Syrians, who accused them of failing to understand what true oppression involves.
“You are living in a paradise compared to Syria,” Issam Zeitoun, a liaison for the Free Syrian Army with the international community, told the protesters as they refused to stop shouting and allow the event to continue. “You should be ashamed.”
The altercation occurred at a packed hall at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where a Free Syrian Army liaison and a Syrian Kurdish representative spoke to students at an event organized by the university’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
“I wasn’t surprised by what happened. I expect that people will behave like this when I speak at an Israeli institution because it is really a serious matter,” Zeitoun told The Times of Israel afterwards.
“Many Syrians and Palestinians see us as traitors,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can judge Syrians for speaking with Israelis in public.
“The intensity of the conflict, and the number of the people we have lost, is too great, and I will personally do all that I can and speak with everyone, not just in Israel, but around the world, in order to change the situation,” he added.
After the protests had died down, Zeitoun told the crowd that Israeli aid to Syrians, which includes Israel’s well-known medical assistance — more than 2,000 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals since 2013 — is not enough to influence the population to be more pro-Israel. He said there needed to be some action on the political level for the majority of Syrians to be swayed in its attitude to the Jewish state.
Zeitoun, who has become a familiar Syrian opposition representative in the Israeli press, argued that Israel should help create a safe zone in southern Syria, where he is from.
Zeitoun told The Times of Israel he did not believe Israel should intervene militarily, but should make itself felt politically in the Syrian conflict.
“Israel should play a role in getting the political cover from the Russians and the Americans [for a safe zone], and we’ll do the rest,” he said.
He argued that a safe zone could be created on Syria’s border with Israel, and would mark the start of a return to normalcy in the country, where civilian infrastructures such as schools and hospitals, not to mention civil society institutions, have been decimated by six years of bloody war.
The Syrian war has claimed over 400,000 lives, according to UN estimates, and driven millions from their homes.
The discussion was led by Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, a former journalist who covered the Arab world in Israeli and Russian media, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the current chair of the Knesset’s caucus for Israeli-Kurdish relations. Syrian Kurdish author and journalist Sirwan Kajjo, who hails from the Syrian border town of Qamishili but now lives in Washington, DC, was also on the panel.
According to Svetlova, Israeli cabinet ministers, when they meet on Syria, often ask, “Who is there on the other side that we can talk to and prepare for the next stage?”
She noted that the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, which is committed to destroying Israel, has grown stronger after six years of fighting in Syria.
“In 2017 we will see the increasing influence of Hezbollah. We will have to make hard choices in regard to action or inaction in Syria,” she said.
Speaking to The Times of Israel after the event, Svetlova criticized those who argue it would be better to allow Syrian strongman Bashar Assad to retake control of the country and bring the war to an end. That would inevitably lead to another rebellion, she contended.
“Every forceful control of a population will end up in rebellion. When they say we need to bring Assad back from the grave, they forget that the slaughter, and the chaos that erupted after, was his doing. To bring back the dictatorship is never the answer,” she said.
Asked if she would accept Assad’s return alongside political reforms, she responded, “If he was going to bring political reforms, he would have introduced them already.”
“Bringing him back will be much worse. It will strengthen [Islamic State] and [its affiliate] the al-Nusra Front because they will have more relevance,” she said.