Defense minister confirms field hospital operating on Syria border

Moshe Ya’alon also deems ‘price tag’ attacks terror and says negotiations with Palestinians may begin ‘within weeks’

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon in the Knesset, Monday (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon in the Knesset, Monday (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, in a wide-ranging presentation to a Knesset defense oversight committee, confirmed on Monday that Israel is operating a field hospital on the Syrian border and transferring severely wounded Syrian nationals to Israeli hospitals for treatment.

“Our policy is to help in humanitarian cases, and to that end we are operating a field hospital along the Syrian border,” Ya’alon told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “In cases where there are badly wounded, we transfer them to Israeli hospitals. We have no intention of opening refugee camps.”

The IDF has kept secret the identity and number of Syrian nationals treated in Israel.

Some 80,000 people have been killed during the Syrian civil war, which has raged for over two years. According to recent figures from the  United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1.5 million refugees have fled the country, mostly to Jordan and Lebanon.

Ya’alon, in his first appearance before the committee, discussed an array of issues ranging from the draft of ultra-Orthodox men to the nature of the so-called Price Tag attacks against Palestinian, Christian and left-leaning Jewish targets, which he deemed “terror operations.”

Prior to the meeting, Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of the General Staff, came under fire for barring the committee from seeing IDF officers of their choosing. Ynet reported that committee members accused the defense minister of rendering them a “rubber stamp.”

Committee head Avigdor Liberman said at the outset that he and Ya’alon had “reached an understanding,” adding that he hoped the message would be passed down to all relevant parties and not “stop at the level of the defense minister.”

Ya’alon assured the committee that it would receive “the full cooperation necessary for the security of the state of Israel” — a statement that left ambiguous the matter of whether he felt there should be greater or lesser inclusion of parliamentarians in security affairs.

The armed forces have traditionally been reluctant to share too much information with the parliamentary oversight committee, claiming that classified information all too often is leaked for political gain.

Former MK and longtime committee member Aryeh Eldad castigated a senior IDF officer last year, saying that “you have never taken the Knesset seriously. You don’t take us into consideration at all.”

Ya’alon began his periodic security briefing with Syria, saying that the country had become “a sparring ground for the superpowers.”

The S-300, a state-of-the-art Russian-made missile system, he said, had not yet been delivered to Syria and, if it is eventually transferred, “that will only happen in 2014.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of the US armed forces, characterized the sale in May as “ill-timed and very unfortunate.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May in an attempt to dissuade him from going ahead with the deal, reportedly indicating that Israel would destroy the missile batteries before they became fully operational.

Minister of Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Yuval Steinitz said last week that the Russian missiles, with a range of over 200 kilometers, would pose a threat to Israeli civilian aircraft flying over the center of the country.

Brig. Gen. (res) Uzi Eilam, former Chief Scientist and director of R&D at the Defense Ministry, noted that the system has been operational for two decades and told Army Radio that “to think that so many years later we still do not have a solution to this thing, I think, is an exaggeration.”

Ya’alon characterized the fighting in Syria as having reached a stalemate, whereby neither side “knows how to handle the other side in order to reach victory.” Bashar Assad’s forces, he said, currently hold only 40 percent of the country and have lost their grip on four neighborhoods in the capital city of Damascus.

Hezbollah, he added, has sent “its best troops” into combat in Syria.

On the Palestinian front, Ya’alon said that Israel was not willing “to pay the Palestinians to come sit around the negotiating table,” and estimated that “within several weeks we will know if the American secretary of state’s efforts have enabled the beginning of talks.”

In the West Bank, he said that despite an overall rise in violence, the Central Command had changed its operational deployment of late and had seen a corresponding dip in the number of violent actions in the area over the past several days.

In addition, he called the hate crimes known as Price Tag attacks “terror operations” and said, “I hope we are able to stop this grave phenomenon.”

The designation is significant. Labeling the attacks terrorism, as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has sought in recent weeks, would allow Israel’s internal security service additional means, including surveillance without a warrant and a delay in the time elapsed before a suspect is allowed to see a lawyer.

Former deputy head of the Shin Bet, Yitzhak Ilan, said at a security conference in May that “the current state of the law does not correspond to the current state of affairs” and called “for a revision of the matter.”

Ya’alon concluded by addressing the issue of draft. “I would be happy to see more Arabs and more ultra-Orthodox sharing the burden,” he said. “But in my opinion, it was wrong to speak of criminal punishment.”

Stuart Winer and Asher Zeiger contributed to this report.

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