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Netanyahu on offering aid to Lebanon: We distinguish between regime and people

‘That’s our way,’ PM tells Knesset, noting that Israel has previously offered emergency assistance to Syrians and Iranians after natural disasters

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (Knesset/Adina Veldman)
Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (Knesset/Adina Veldman)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday expressed condolences to the Lebanese people following a massive explosion at the Beirut port that killed more than a hundred people, and reiterated his offer to send humanitarian aid.

Israel’s leaders have offered humanitarian aid, and its hospitals have offered to treat the injured, but it had received no response as of late Wednesday afternoon.

“First of all, in the name of the Israeli government I am conveying our condolences to the Lebanese people,” he said at the beginning of a speech at the Knesset.

“Yesterday there was a very great catastrophe in Lebanon. We are ready to send humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, as human beings to human beings,” he added, speaking over loud heckling by opposition lawmakers.

“We have done that in the past. During the humanitarian crisis in Syria, I ordered the building of a field hospital at our border in the Golan Heights… We offered several times, after earthquakes and natural disasters in Iran, humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people.”

“That’s our way. We distinguish between the regimes and the people,” he added.

He also tweeted his offer of aid in Arabic:

The prime minister did not mention that Israel has also passed on occasion to offer aid. Last year, Lebanon asked its neighbors for help battling forest fires that have ravaged homes and killed a volunteer firefighter in the Mediterranean country. Beirut did not appeal to Israel for help and Jerusalem did not offer any, despite having in the past offered assistance to states in the region, including those with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations.

Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, frequently say they hold the government of Lebanon responsible for any attacks by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group.

A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

On Tuesday evening, a massive blast rocked Beirut, killing at least 100 and leaving large parts of the capital in ruins. The disaster has pushed Lebanon, already straining under an unprecedented economic crisis, to the brink, and hospitals have struggled to cope with the thousands of injured.

Several hours after the explosion, Israel’s foreign and defense ministries announced they had “approached Lebanon through international defense and diplomatic channels to offer the Lebanese government medical humanitarian aid.”

Shortly thereafter, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying he had approved the offer of assistance and ordered National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to speak with UN officials to explore “how Israel can further assist Lebanon.”

As of Wednesday evening, it was unclear how, if at all, Lebanon responded to the Israeli overture.

In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, IDF soldiers prepare humanitarian aid as part of the army’s ‘Good Neighbor’ program for Syrian civilians on the Syrian Golan Heights. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel regularly dispatches aid to faraway countries, including setting up field hospitals, assisting search and rescue efforts and sending food, water and other essentials.

Its offers of aid to enemy countries are almost always turned down and sometimes earn it accusations of “rubble-washing” — using disaster recovery to burnish its image.

Aside from humanitarian aid, several Israeli hospitals have offered to help treat Lebanon’s injured. Masaad Barhum, the director of the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, near the Lebanon border, joined three other hospitals that offered help overnight.

“We wish to extend our hands in aid and assistance…We only want to help you. Rest assured those who come in wounded and hurt will leave safe and sound, with the grace of God. We’re waiting for you,” he said in a video tweeted out by the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesman to the Arab world.

Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Ziv Hospital in Safed and Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan had previously offered help as well.

Many Israelis have expressed horror over the disaster that struck Beirut and sympathy with the Lebanese people, despite past enmity between the countries.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announced that his City Hall would light up in the colors of the Lebanese flag in solidarity Wednesday night. “Humanity comes before any conflict, and our heart is with the Lebanese people following the terrible disaster that befell them,” Huldai said.

The Tel Aviv Municipality building lit in the colors of the Egyptian flag on May 28, 2017 to show solidarity with Christian Copts killed in a terror attack near Cairo a day earlier. (Tel Aviv Municipality)

However, Yair Netanyahu, the son of the prime minister, tweeted that he was opposed to displaying the colors, falsely claiming that it was illegal to show the flag of an enemy country.

While several bills outlawing the public display of flags of countries or entities hostile to Israel have been proposed in recent years, none have been passed into law.

Others on the right also expressed opposition to aiding Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, with which Israel has been locked in conflict for decades. Hezbollah is sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction and is part of the Lebanese government.

Bezalel Smotrich, an MK from the right-wing opposition Jewish Home party, wrote on Twitter that Israel should only offer Lebanon help if it is in Israel’s strategic interest. “Morally, we have no obligation or need to extend a helping hand to an outright enemy state,” he wrote.

Moshe Feiglin, a far-right libertarian and former Likud MK, appeared to express glee over the blast on Facebook while implying that Israel was behind it.

“A real thank you to all the geniuses and heroes who organized this great celebration for love day,” he wrote, referring to the Jewish holiday of Tu B’av which is marked Wednesday.

He went on to claim, without evidence, that the blast was caused by explosives being stored by Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terror group. Lebanese authorities say the explosion was caused by some 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port for years blowing up. Like others, Feiglin compared the resulting mushroom cloud to an atomic bomb.

A general view of the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, on August 4, 2020 . (STR / AFP)

“You don’t actually believe this was some disorganized fuel depot, right? Do you understand what hell would have befallen us beneath a rain of missiles?” wrote Feiglin, the leader of the Zehut party.

Israel has fought a number of wars with Lebanon and the countries are officially enemy states. From 1982 to 2000 Israel occupied a swath of southern Lebanon to push out Palestinian groups, and in 2006 fought a devastating war against Hezbollah. While Israel in the past has avoided direct confrontation with Lebanon’s US-backed armed forces, it has indicated in recent years that it may not do so in a future conflict.

Tensions have been high on the Israeli-Lebanese border recently, after Israel said it thwarted an infiltration attempt by up to five Hezbollah gunmen — a claim denied by Hezbollah. Israel has been bracing for an attack from Hezbollah after the terror group accused the Jewish state of killing one of its men in an airstrike in Syria last month.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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