Since the outset of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011, many questions have emerged about the possibility of future relations with Israel.
Most Syrians oppose normalizing relations with Israel and reject efforts towards reconciliation between the two countries. Yet, some opposition supporters have come out in favor of building a relationship between Syrian rebel factions and Israel against Assad, who they perceive as a common enemy.
The two countries have faced off in two wars, the first in 1967 and the second in 1973. Along with Palestinian and Lebanese territory, Israel has occupied some 70 percent of the Syrian Golan Heights in violation of international law since the 1967 war.
Kamal al-Labwani, a member of the Syrian National Council, has visited Israel and met with Israeli officials twice since the uprising started. Though Labwani is the most public, he is one of many Syrian activists in regular contact with Israeli officials via email, according to hacked emails published by the left-wing Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar.
The efforts of Labwani and others have largely fallen on deaf ears at home, many activists told Syria Deeply. Lamis, a 21-year-old university student in in Turkey, blasted Labwani’s offer to relinquish Syrian claims to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in exchange for Israeli support against Assad. “He is crazy,” she said. “He doesn’t have the right to speak in our name and offer the Golan Heights [to Israel].”
The international community does not recognize Israel’s 1981 unilateral annexation of the territory. An estimated 20,000 Syrian Arabs – the majority are from the Druze religious sect – live beside more than 21,000 Israelis, who reside in settlements in the Golan in violation of international law.
“This revolution brought all the traitors to the surface,” Lamis added.
Maha, a 20-year-old student in Turkey, also says Labwani doesn’t have the right to propose an exchange of the Golan Heights. “I don’t consider him a traitor, though,” she told Syria Deeply. “We lost the Golan Heights a long time ago. Labwani is trying to find a way to stop the bloodshed and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t approve of his proposal, but that doesn’t mean we should call him a traitor.”
In April 2014, Labwani called for co-operation between Israel and certain elements of the Syrian opposition. “The revolution has created a historic opportunity for peace between the nations,” he said, according to Israeli media reports. In addition to hardline Islamist elements of the opposition such as al-Qaeda, Labwani said Iran and Hezbollah, both aligned with the Assad government, were the “joint enemies of Israel and the Syrian people.”
According to Masoud, a 35-year-old lawyer from Idlib, few Syrians support Labwani’s proposal. “Those are isolated calls,” he said. “They have no weight at all. If someone went on TV and offered Raqqa to ISIS [in exchange] for them staying out of Idlib, would people do it? Of course not.”
Masoud says that media outlets have “exaggerated these stories” and “turned them into a big deal.”
Citing Israel’s occupation of the Golan and the Palestinian territories, Samira, a 39-year-old gynecologist from Aleppo, also rejects any potential alliance between Israel and Syrian opposition groups. “Israel has always been and will always be our number-one enemy,” he said. “Israel stole Syrian and Palestinian lands and killed many of us. We will never accept Israel as any ally or even recognize it as a state.”
Yet, some view the issue differently. 34-year-old Abdul Khaliq, disagrees. He says that Labwani’s calls for normalized relations with Israel are reasonable and deserve support. “Labwani’s right,” he told Syria Deeply. “Israel is a part of the problem, and therefore must take part in the solution.”
Abdul Khaliq endorses Labwani’s plan to arm moderate factions of the Syrian opposition in order to simultaneously fight Assad’s forces and hardline Islamists within the opposition, such as the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. “Israel also has a strategic interest in doing something,” he added. “The whole story of the Syrian-Israeli animosity is a big lie. It’s time to figure out a way to co-exist.”
Omar, a 31-year-old Syrian refugee in Turkey, argues that the Assad government is the greater threat to Syrians. “Israel did not kill my family or destroy my home – the brutal Syrian regime did,” he told Syria Deeply. “All calls for peace should be taken seriously, including Labwani’s.”
Labwani is not the sole voice calling for Israeli support. In May, the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Moussa Nabhan penned an open letter to Israeli politician Ayoub Kara expressing his hope for friendly relations between Israel and Syria following Assad’s expulsion. Nabhan praised Israel’s “esteemed humanitarian positions toward the Syrian revolution and its people,” as reported by the Jerusalem Post.
Israel provides medical treatment to wounded Syrian rebels near the Golan Heights. Following Jabhat al-Nusra’s killing of dozens of Syrian Druze in the Idlib province last month, angry Golan residents stormed an Israeli ambulance and killed an opposition fighter. They accused Israel of supporting Jabhat al-Nusra.
Israel denies these accusations, though admits to having treated its fighters and returning them to the battlefield. “Israel didn’t give one shekel or one bullet to Nusra members,” a senior Israeli army officer told the daily Haaretz, adding that Nusra-affiliated fighters have been barred from medical treatment since early June.
Manal, a 41-year-old teacher from Idlib, says Israeli-Arab relations should be rethought. “Many still believe that the solution to this conflict is to fight,” she explained. “This doesn’t make sense anymore. The younger generation is still influenced by Arab nationalist slogans, but the older generation has realized the necessity of re-examining these relations.”
Nonetheless, reconciliation efforts appear to be unpopular among most of the Syrian opposition as well. Dozens of members of opposition supporters also decried Labwani’s proposal to trade the Golan in a petition, according to the Jordanian daily Al Arab Al Yawm. “Freedom that comes from the enemy is not freedom,” the petitioners wrote.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Strickland