Ambulance lynching reveals Israel’s secret war in Syria – Assaf Uni/Newsweek

by Newsstand

On 22 June, the tension on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, a mountainous plateau that the country shares with Syria after occupying most of it in 1967, boiled over into violence. First an Israeli military ambulance was stopped in the village of Horfeish by a mob demanding to inspect its patients. Rocks were thrown and a man was reportedly injured as the ambulance sped away having refused to open its doors.

That night, a second ambulance went through the village of Majdal Shams, but this time the mob was more determined. The road was blocked, the ambulance’s windows smashed, and, after a short pursuit to a neighbouring Israeli village, the patients dragged out. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers attempting to protect them were beaten, and the two wounded men being transported were attacked with sticks and chains in what has been described as a lynching. One was killed and another is in a critical condition.

The mob was made up of members of Israel’s Druze community, a small monotheistic religion that derives from Shia Islam. The men they attacked were Syrians injured fighting in the country’s bloody and chaotic civil war, whom the Druze suspected of being members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, because they had beards.

Israel denies these two were Nusra fighters, but who exactly they were fighting for touches on one of the most sensitive questions in the Middle East today. Is Israel co-operating with Islamist rebels in the Golan Heights in the war against Assad? If so, how? Why? With what groups?

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, many observers believe Israel has been bombing arms shipments from Iran, Assad’s ally, as they’ve passed through Syria en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Israel denies supporting any side in the brutal conflict.

Since February 2013, the Jewish state has provided medical care to injured Syrians. So far, 1,600 – most badly injured – have been treated in hospitals in northern Israel. The effort has produced uplifting stories of injured Syrian children saved by Israeli doctors. But the majority of patients have been young men of military age, whose affiliation with the various rebel groups remains shrouded in secrecy.

Since 1974, a United Nations peacekeeping force has been stationed in the Golan Heights to monitor the cease-fire between Israel and Syria. In their latest report to the UN, the peacekeepers mentioned several meetings along the border between armed Syrian rebels and Israeli soldiers. They saw the Israelis take injured Syrians into their vehicles and load rebel trucks with sacks. What was in those sacks remains unclear, but Israeli sources, speaking in an off-the-record briefing, say the contents included food and blankets for the winter.

Israeli army medical staff
Israeli army medical staff tend to a man wounded in Syria in a hospital on the Golan HeightsMenahem Kahana/Getty

The UN report doesn’t specify which rebel group the Israelis were helping. Figuring out who the rebels are is often a complicated process. The groups along the border range from secular nationalists such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to Sunni Islamist radicals like Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, and its splinter groups. There’s also a low-level Isis presence. But the main force operating in the area, Israeli sources say, is Nusra.

“What we have on the other side is 50 shades of black,” said an Israeli senior army official recently, on the condition of anonymity, referring to the black flags used by Nusra and other Islamist groups.

A case working its way through the Israeli legal system is also raising questions. Sudki al-Makt, a Druze who had spent more than two decades in prison for plotting to attack Israeli military bases, is charged with espionage and other security-related offences after contacting a young IDF soldier, Hillal Chalabi, a fellow Druze. Chalabi, 19, is alleged to have tipped off al-Makt, 48, to injured Syrian rebels being brought into Israel for medical treatment. Al-Makt filmed grainy footage of the crossing, which, although it proved nothing concrete, later made it onto Syrian TV.

Israel says that al-Makt was publishing reports on Facebook and YouTube about the Israeli army’s activity in the Golan and allege that he contacted Syrian officials with promises of secret information. But much of what the indictment calls “secret Israeli army activity” is blacked out in the document.

Al-Makt’s lawyer declines to comment, but Yamin Zidan, his former attorney, who wasn’t allowed to represent him at the trial because he lacked security clearance, believes the full indictment, if disclosed, would reveal what Israel is really up to in Syria. “The conversations,” he says, “show the level of co-operation between Israel and the rebels against Assad.”

What the Israeli military will say on the record is that it is offering medical care to injured Syrians. Over the past year and a half, for instance, Israeli doctors at the Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed have treated around 500 of them.

“If you ask me whether we are treating Nusra fighters, I can tell you honestly – I don’t know,” says hospital director Dr Salman Zarka. “We don’t ask them which group they belong to, and if we ask how they got injured, it is to differentiate between a blast injury and a penetrating one. We don’t care who our patients are – we just try to save their lives.”

The Israeli military says it has a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on injured fighters and assumes radical Islamists will not feel comfortable getting treated in Israel. The doctors I met say a few rebels demanded to be sent back once they discovered they were in Israel.

It’s just this “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has angered the Druze in the Golan. Unlike the majority of the Druze in Israel, who serve in the army, many of the Druze in Majdal Shams have long been supporters of Assad. Furthermore, in mid-June, Nusra fighters killed 20 Druze villagers near Idlib, in northern Syria. And for the first time, the Druze on the Israeli side of the border held demonstrations in the Golan Heights, publicly demanding that Israel protect their Syrian relatives.

Following the ambulance attacks, the leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, has moved to reassure the Israeli government, condemning the attacks and telling Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “We are at your service.” But tensions remain high, and Israel is mulling over going to the aid of some Druze just across the border in Syria.

Saleh Tarif, a Druze leader and former minister in the Israeli government, is also confident Israel will help his fellow Druze in the Syrian villages near the border. “Israel is using a dual approach – it has certain understandings with groups like [the Nusra Front], and it also uses its power to threaten it not to take certain actions,” he says. “It’s a jungle on the other side, and Israel has to do what it can.”

Israeli officials will not confirm their Druze policy but have offered hints. “The [Israeli] alliance with the Druze people does not stop at the border,” air force commander Maj-Gen Amir Eshel recently told a meeting of Druze leaders.

Either way, Dr Zarka, who is himself Druze, will continue to treat the wounded the IDF ambulances bring him. “Many in my [Druze] community ask me, ‘How can you help the same people who may shoot our brothers across the border?'” he says. “But what should I do, let a man die? Even if there were a Nusra fighter sitting right here, with a bullet in his abdomen, should I shoot him again? Or as a doctor, should I save his life? To me, it’s clear, and the fact Israel is treating its enemies is proof of the country’s real humanitarian commitment.”

Ambulance lynching reveals Israel’s secret war in Syria.