Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Monday that Israel is prepared to continue treating casualties from the war in Syria but will definitely not take in any refugees.
Among the reasons the minister gave during an interview with Israel Radio was that absorbing Syrians could cause the Palestinian Authority to renew its demand that Israel take in Palestinians from Syria.
“You have to differentiate between the two things,” Steinitz said. “To treat injured people is one thing, to take in civilians as citizens is something else entirely.”
Since 2013, Israel has quietly treated 3,000 Syrian casualties who were spirited across the border into Israel for medical treatment at special field hospitals or in Israeli medical centers.
The policy of treating injured Syrians will continue and, if possible, Israel will take in injured children from Idlib, the rebel-held northern province bombed by Syrian regime warplanes last week, Steinitz added. Over 80 people died in the attack, including 27 children, with many of the victims showing symptoms of exposure to the chemical agent sarin.
“It is a technicality, and only a technicality, to [expand the humanitarian efforts to include] injured children, whether from chemical or other weapons, from Idlib. That is our policy,” Steinitz said and noted that Idlib is much deeper into Syria than the border areas from which the wounded have come thus far.
A security cabinet meeting on Sunday considered a proposal to bring Syrian children wounded in last week’s chemical weapons attack to Israel for treatment.
The proposal — put forth by Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz — received the support of all of the members of the security cabinet, with the exception of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
Liberman and the security establishment are said to oppose the move due to the difficulty of having to coordinate it with Turkey, where many of the wounded are currently being treated.
Steinitz was adamant that Syrians will only be treated by Israel and not given citizenship.
“There are enough countries in the world that can take in refugees as citizens,” he said.
Israel is also concerned that the act would rekindle the demand from Palestinian leaders to take in Palestinians from Syria. Israel has agreed to do so in the past on the condition that the incoming Palestinians relinquish their claims to “return” within Israel’s borders. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused the Israeli demand, and no agreement was reached on allowing Palestinians in Syria to return.
“From our point of view we are not a regular country. The Palestinians are constantly trying to bring Palestinians and Arab residents here into Israel,” Steinitz said.
“The world is a big place. To take in wounded Syrians, definitely yes. To take in residents from Syria, definitely no.”
Steinitz also praised the US missile strike Friday that followed the Idlib chemical weapons attack, saying it clarified to dictators worldwide that they could not use nonconventional weapons on civilians.
“It sent a clear message that every dictator, and certainly to Assad, that any dictator who uses nonconventional weapons against civilians will pay a heavy price. And that is a very important message not just for Assad, but also for Iran and North Korea, and all the other dictators in the world.”
Steinitz also called on the international community, and in particular the US and Russia, to complete work begun in 2013 to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.
He also urged international backing for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in bringing economic and security stability to his country.
On Sunday, Islamic State cells in Egypt killed at least 43 and wounded about 100 in twin bombings of Palm Sunday worship at two Coptic Christian churches in northern Egypt. It was the latest in a string of attacks by jihadist groups that have killed hundreds of security personnel and civilians in Egypt.
“We are very very interested, just like all of the reasonable and free world, that the situation in Egypt stabilizes and that Egypt emerges from the complicated situation that it is in. If Egypt crashes, that will be a danger not just for Israel and the Middle East, but for Europe too.”
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.