Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be calling Syrian President Bashar Assad. The conversation could go like this:
“Hi Bash. I’ve got Hamas in Gaza and you’ve got your rebels in Idlib, but you just don’t know how to handle the situation.”
Assad could reply, “Hey Bibi, you don’t seem focused on wiping Hamas out, while I’m winning, so don’t preach to me.”
Comparing Israel to Syria – or Bibi’s problems to those of Assad – might seem like a contradiction in terms, but truth is very often stranger than fiction. Underlying the actions of both leaders is a shared determination to remain in power, come what may.
Gaza and Idlib are two sides of the same coin, each with a small group of anti-government or terrorist fighters embedded in the midst of the large civilian populace. In the case of Gaza, there are approximately 50,000 fighters in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, out of an estimated population of 1.8 million people. This means that approximately 3% of the people in Gaza are terrorists, interspersed within the civilian population. According to Gulf News, the population of Idlib has increased to 2.5 million with the recent influx of refugees. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, claims that only 1.5% of the population of Idlib are fighters, giving us 37,500 fighters interspersed with the civilian, and in this case, largely refugee population.
A relatively small percentage of fighters amongst a civilian population is where the situations facing Assad’s Syria and Israel’s Bibi coincide. While Israel faces frequent terrorist attacks from Gaza on its civilian population in various forms, Syria has had to face large-scale armed revolution from several groups opposed to Assad’s rule. How the two leaders deal with the problem, however, indicates the world of difference between Israel, a civilized and modern democracy, and Syria, a vicious cruel and uncaring dictatorship.
Taking a look at where the two countries diverge, we have Israel on one hand, which maintains an army considered to have what can be described as one of the highest moral standards in the world, while Syria, on the other hand, boasts a shocking record with regard to moral standards and the observance of human rights.
Syria, in the person of Assad, has been accused of the most flagrant disregard for human life, be it that of rebel fighters or innocent civilians refugees. The Syrian army has used cluster bombs as well as the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons on its civilian population, both of which are internationally banned. Amnesty International has accused the Syrian government of committing war crimes on an epic scale. Syria shows a scant regard for the fact that a small percentage of fighters are embedded in a civilian population, with the entire hapless populace becoming a target for indiscriminate bombing attacks. No attempt whatsoever is made to differentiate between fighters and others; the entire population is fair game for Assad.
By contrast, Israel goes to extreme measures, often endangering the safety of its own forces, to ensure that collateral damage is kept to an absolute minimum. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of all British forces in Afghanistan, said “No other army in the world has ever done more than Israel is doing now to save the lives of innocent civilians in a combat zone,” Kemp added that when world leaders demand Israel do more, “perhaps Israel should ask what more it can do.” Israeli pilots go the extreme of dropping notes warning civilian occupants of targeted areas that a bombing raid will be taking place. This is counterproductive and dangerous for Israeli troops, as the Hamas fighters thus also receive an early warning and can take the appropriate action. Israel spends vast amounts of money on research and development of smart technology in its attempts to reduce any collateral damage to an absolute minimum.
The latest round of armed disturbances on the Gaza border, which Hamas disingenuously refers to as “peaceful protests,” which take place every Friday, are designed to provoke the Israeli Defense Force in every way possible. This is a blatant attempt to evoke a military response from Israel, in the presence of global media representatives, most of whom are unsympathetic, if not outrightly biased against Israel, while just waiting to file another report critical of Israel. The reality here is that Hamas, like Assad, has little regard for the lives of civilians living in Gaza – encouraging mass protests and then using its armed fighters to create incidents while using a human shield, inviting an Israeli military response, which Hamas hopes will result in injuries, or even better, in deaths of civilians.
When small groups of armed individuals in a belligerent crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people taunt Israeli soldiers by storming the border fence – and in some cases opening fire, throwing hand grenades or incendiary devices that threaten soldiers’ lives – this demands a response. The fact that so few people have been killed by the Israeli responses, speaks volumes for the restraint and moral standards observed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Hamas itself has admitted that a large percentage of the small number killed have in fact been the movement’s fighters, bent on inciting a response, not civilians, which in reality means that a very small percentage of those killed are civilians.
Compare this to the number of civilian deaths resulting from the indiscriminate and cruel bombing by the Syrian Army and its allies, in trying to regain control of Syria. Remaining alive after seeking refuge in an area such as Idlib, which, incidentally is the very region to which many rebel fighters were given safe passage by the Assad regime, has become a lottery. The very fact that the world stands by as horrific military action, using means that are often illegal, is wiping out an innocent civilian population, while at the same time accusing Israel of human rights violations, does not speak well of global moral standards.
Netanyahu should possibly commiserate with Assad publicly, as they face the similar problem of fighters in a civilian population. He should also offer Assad advice with regard to the moral correctness of how Israel’s Army deals with the situation, compared to the barbaric and criminal action taken by the Syrian army and its allies. This type of approach by the Israeli prime minister might awaken the world to the vast difference in approach by the regularly maligned IDF, and that of the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies, who receive far less criticism, if any at all.
The writer, a retired major in the South African Army Reserve Force, was commander of the counter insurgency training area in Namibia in 1976. A lecturer on South African Jewish military history, he made aliyah five years ago and authored Street Names in Israel.