Mostly mum on chemical attack, Israel’s Arab MKs divided on Assad
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Mostly mum on chemical attack, Israel’s Arab MKs divided on Assad

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh says his ‘heart aches’ for infant victims of chemical attack, but stops of short condemning regime

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Leader of the Joint (Arab) list, Ayman Odeh, seen during a vote on the bill that would allow MKs to suspend lawmakers from the Knesset, March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Leader of the Joint (Arab) list, Ayman Odeh, seen during a vote on the bill that would allow MKs to suspend lawmakers from the Knesset, March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The six days since first reports of a deadly chemical attack on the Syrian province of Idlib have seen a range of responses from Israel’s political players, but most of them only differing in the level of outrage, the immediacy of their calls for action, and the passion of their support for US air strikes.

An exception, however, is the Joint (Arab) List. This 13-member amalgamation of convenience of four very different Arab-led factions has not condemned the gas attack, and members of one of its constituent factions, Hadash, have expressed some support for the regime of President Bashar Assad.

According to a Haaretz report Sunday, the Joint List had prepared a statement condemning the attack, but it was vetoed by the Hadash faction.

A spokesperson for the party told The Times of Israel on Sunday that party chair Ayman Odeh expressed the official line during a speech in the Knesset last week and no other statement was planned.

Palestinian supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization wave Palestinian and Syrian flags alongside a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad as they demonstrate on April 9, 2017 in the center of the West Bank city of Nablus against US air strikes on Syria. (AFP/JAAFAR ASHTIYEH)
Palestinian supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization wave Palestinian and Syrian flags alongside a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as they demonstrate on April 9, 2017, in the center of the West Bank city of Nablus against US air strikes on Syria. (AFP/JAAFAR ASHTIYEH)

Speaking at a Knesset session on Wednesday, Odeh, who also heads Hadash, expressed his shock at the brutal photos of women and children poisoned by the deadly sarin gas, but stopped short of criticizing the Assad regime for carrying out the attack.

“My heart aches for the children murdered in Syria, just as it aches over the images of children murdered in Yemen of Gaza,” Odeh said.

“There needs to be a principled stance against any harm to citizens, all citizens, and specifically children, regardless of their religion,” he added.

This frame grab from video provided on Tuesday April 4, 2017, by Qasioun News Agency, shows a Syrian man carrying a man on his back who has suffered from a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria (Qasioun News Agency, via AP)
This frame grab from video provided on Tuesday April 4, 2017, by Qasioun News Agency, shows a Syrian man carrying a man on his back who has suffered from a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria (Qasioun News Agency, via AP)

While Odeh was not the only Knesset member to leave Assad out of statements on the attack, the omission was seen by some as in-line with his Hadash faction’s apparent support for the Syrian president during the six years of civil war that has raged on the other side of Israel’s border.

In December, Hadash Secretary General Adal Amar came under criticism for praising the “unification of Aleppo,” after the eastern part of the Syrian city fell to the control of Assad regime forces.

In an immediate response to Amar’s post, Odeh released a statement placing some blame on the Syrian regime but saying the conflict had been “hijacked by savage groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) and the Islamic State.”

Speaking last Thursday, Hadash and Joint (Arab) List MK Abdullah Abu Maaruf echoed Odeh’s focus on Islamic State atrocities over those of the Syrian regime but went even further, and absolved Assad of blame.

“Islamic State is responsible for the murder of innocent civilians in Syria for six years now. Assad is only protecting the people,” Marroff told Army Radio. “If anyone should be criticized, it should be Saudi Arabia for bombing citizens in Yemen,” he said, referring to another conflict raging in the region.

Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin attends a Knesset committee meeting, November 2, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin attends a Knesset committee meeting, November 2, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Dov Khenin, the only Jewish Knesset member representing Hadash and the Joint (Arab) List, said that the party’s position was clear: “Any purposeful attack on civilians is a crime, wherever it takes place, and the use of chemical weapons is a war crime.” He too, however, failed to mention Assad by name, saying only that an inquiry was needed to determine those responsible.

Joint List MKs from other factions were less forgiving of Assad’s role, but followed Odeh’s line in questioning the focus on Syrian civilians while ignoring what they described as similar Israeli crimes.

“Bashar is a war criminal and what he has been doing since the Syrian revolution started in 2011 is a massacre,” firebrand MK Hanin Zoabi, from the hardline Balad faction, told Army Radio on Thursday.

“But the Israeli army are war criminals too. Both [Assad and Israeli soldiers] should be put on trial in The Hague,” she added, sparking a boisterous argument with the radio hosts.

Joint Arab List Knesset members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R) ,Basel Ghattas (2R) and Ayman Odeh (C) at the weekly faction meeting in the Knesset, February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint Arab List Knesset members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R) ,Basel Ghattas (2R) and Ayman Odeh (C) at the weekly faction meeting in the Knesset, February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Ahmed Tibi, who heads the Joint List’s Ta’al faction, speaking after Zoabi, said that with four separate factions in the party, differences in opinions can be expected and he does personally does not support everything his colleagues have said.

“What has happened in recent years, not just in recent days, is a war crime, and those responsible need to pay. That’s my opinion,” he said.

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