Israel acknowledges it is helping Syrian rebel fighters

Defense minister says Jerusalem assists insurgents in exchange for promise Druze will be kept out of harm’s way

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

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon attends an IDF exercise on May 7, 2015 (Diana Hananshvili/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon attends an IDF exercise on May 7, 2015 (Diana Hananshvili/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday that Israel has been providing aid to Syrian rebels, thus keeping the Druze in Syria out of immediate danger. Israeli officials have previously balked at confirming on the record that the country has been helping forces that are fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

During a briefing with Israel’s diplomatic correspondents at the IDF’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Ya’alon said that Israel’s ongoing humanitarian assistance to Syrian rebel fighters, a source of growing conflict between Israel and its own Druze population, safeguards the minority population in Syria.

“We’ve assisted them under two conditions,” Ya’alon said of the Israeli medical aid to the Syrian rebels, some of whom are presumably fighting with al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. “That they don’t get too close to the border, and that they don’t touch the Druze.”

The Druze on Israel’s side of the Golan, Ya’alon charged, acted “irresponsibly” last week by attacking an Israeli ambulance carrying wounded Syrian rebel fighters. One person was killed and another wounded during what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu termed a “lynching.” The person in the Israeli ambulance was not affiliated with the al-Nusra Front, and his death would provoke calls for revenge, Ya’alon asserted.

Israel has treated over 1,000 wounded Syrians in its hospitals since the onset of the civil war in 2011.

Israel will continue to act with sensitivity regarding the Druze, Ya’alon said. “On the other side — the rebels on the other side feel that we’re acting sensitively,” he said.

Israel has provided humanitarian assistance to wounded Syrian fighters located near the shared border since the civil war stated, the defense minister said. He said that such aid is extended under two conditions – that the fighters don’t let Islamic extremists to get close to the border, and that they don’t hurt the local Druze population.

An IDF ambulance that was attacked by Druze Israeli residents in the Golan Heights as it ferried Syrian war casualties for medical treatment in Israel, June 22, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
An IDF ambulance that was attacked by Druze Israeli residents in the Golan Heights as it ferried Syrian war casualties for medical treatment in Israel, June 22, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Jerusalem’s policy vis-à-vis the Druze in Syria “is very complicated and sensitive,” Ya’alon said, adding that it is not in the rebels’ interest to publicize the fact that Israel assists them.

“Our general policy is that we’re not getting involved in the Syrian war,” he stressed, although there were certain red lines Israel would act to maintain, such as the smuggling of so-called game-changing weapons to Israel’s enemies.

”We will not tolerate any violation of our sovereignty or even accidental fire from Syria into our territory. We will act immediately to strike at those who plant explosives near the border or fire at us,” he declared.

Ya’alon also reiterated his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, repeating his belief that there will not be a permanent peace deal “in our generation.”

This, he said, was not because of any Israeli objection to Palestinian statehood, but rather due to the refusal of the Palestinian leadership to negotiate or make the necessary concessions.

Over the years, Jerusalem has taken several steps in a bid to renew the diplomatic process, including freezing settlement construction and releasing Palestinian terrorists, and has accepted in principle a US-brokered framework agreement, but Ramallah was and remains unwilling to negotiate earnestly, he said.

“The ball is not in our court,” Ya’alon declared. “There is much to do to advance issues, but whoever believes that with all kinds of pressure [from the international community] a permanent agreement can be imposed is mistaken.”

Rather than merely maintain the “status quo,” Ya’alon said, both sides could do much to find a “modus vivendi” to improve the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank.

On the Iranian nuclear negotiations, Ya’alon said that he believes the world powers will sign a “bad” deal with Tehran, “if not this week then in the near future.”

The prospective agreement would not freeze Iran’s military nuclear program for a decade, as not a single facility would be closed and no centrifuges would be dismantled, he said.

“Even if there are inspections, they will only be in those facilities that the Iranian agree to,” he said, adding that Tehran has for decades managed to mislead inspectors, for instance by building a large secret enrichment facility in Qom.

“If this regime is emboldened by the sanctions relief [it is to receive as part of the deal, which will pump billions of dollars into the economy] before the 10-year period is over, then who will guarantee that they won’t try to break out to [reach for a bomb]?” he said.

Israel and the US differ fundamentally on the Iranian issue, he said. “They see Iran as a part of the solution; we see it as part of the problem.”

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