On July 1st an opinion piece by former IDF Spokesman Peter Lerner was published in the Ha’aretz newspaper under the title “Should Israel Open Its Borders to Desperate Syrian Refugees?“.
On July 4th the BBC World Service programme ‘Newshour‘ conducted an interview with Peter Lerner based on that opinion piece and some of the points made in it were brought up while another – interestingly – was not.
Menedez: “Syrian government troops and their militia have been closing in on rebels in Daraa province, prompting more than a quarter of a million people to flee their homes – that’s according to the UN. But there is nowhere for them to go: the Jordanian border is closed, so too the border with Israel across the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. A few days ago Israel’s hardline defence minister Avigdor Lieberman said on social media that while Israel was prepared to continue to offer humanitarian assistance to civilians, it wouldn’t accept any Syrian refugees. Well one man calling for a change in that policy is Peter Lerner – for many years a spokesman for the Israeli Defence Forces. This is what he told me on the line from northern Israel, close to the Syrian border.”
In fact, what Lerner called for in his article was rather more nuanced than its presentation by Menendez suggests:
“While Lieberman’s zero refugee policy is morally questionable, the reasoning behind it may be reports in Israel last week citing intelligence sources suggesting Iran is trying to abuse operation Good Neighbor to infiltrate terrorists into Israel.
Israel should make exceptions to its ‘no entry’ policy for refugees, especially orphaned children who are in dire need.” [emphasis added]
In the ‘Newshour’ interview Lerner began by briefly outlining the medical assistance and humanitarian aid Israel has been supplying for the past five years before saying:
Lerner: “So I don’t think that Israel has officially stated that there’s a policy of not opening the border and I think that at the current situation we need to assess that policy and suggest perhaps more assistance, more help – perhaps to facilitate orphaned children that might need assistance and keep them out of harm’s way.”
In his article Lerner also brought up another possibility:
“But if Israel is unwilling to permit refugees to enter its territory, the government now needs to establish a safe zone on the eastern side of the border.
On the international front, the success of a safe zone for displaced Syrians will only be successful if it can truly be safe. Russia alone can secure the required assurances that Assad’s troops and its militias keep at a safe distance. The IDF will have to protect the people that flee to the sanctuary, supply food, shelter, sanitation and medical aid.”
In the radio interview he made a brief reference to that idea which was not picked up by Menendez.
Lerner: “I also think that on the other side of the border there needs to be an international effort to establish an area where people can come and gather…”
Menendez then asked:
Menendez: “In terms though of what Israel should do at the border – I mean does it mean opening the border to all those who may be asking for refugee status, all those who may need medical help?”
After Lerner had explained that the Syrians have for decades been “told that Israel is the arch-enemy” and cited “reports in the Israeli media that Iran was attempting to infiltrate terrorists on this platform”, Menendez jumped in:
Menendez: “Do you…just on that point, do you believe that intelligence assessment that Iran may try to use any greater access across the border to infiltrate people into Israel?”
Lerner: “Absolutely. […] Where there is a hole it is potentially and usually abused. Now the reality on the ground means that Israel needs to take that into consideration but I definitely think that there’s more room than a zero entrance policy. I’m not talking about a widespread opening but I think, you know, a bit more compassion towards people that are actually in dire need.”
Menendez apparently did not comprehend the points made by his interviewee.
Menendez: “What about taking in refugees on a formal basis? As we know, Syria’s other neighbours have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees – why not Israel?”
Lerner once again explained that “Israel is officially in a state of conflict with Syria” and that no “friendly mechanisms” exist before going on:
Lerner: “But that’s exactly my point. I think that there is room for more compassion and not necessarily opening the border because Israel hasn’t got the means or the ability to accept tens of thousands of refugees…”
The interview ended soon after that with listeners hearing nothing at all about one of the other main points raised in Lerner’s article:
“Israel must also appeal to UNDOF (the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force), the UN peacekeeping force to review its mandate. UNDOF was established in 1974 to monitor and supervise the ceasefire between Israel and Syria that ended the Yom Kippur War. In the absurd reality of the Middle East, that is what they continue to do today. There are over 1000 deployed UN personnel that could immediately assist the people in need. However, since the Syrian civil war began, UNDOF has vacated most of its observer camps in the Syrian Golan Heights.”
Obviously listeners’ understanding of the story would have been enhanced had the fact that there are UN soldiers deployed in the vicinity of thousands of displaced Syrians been mentioned in this item. But for some reason the BBC chose to omit that information.