Israel shuts door on Syrian refugees

In January, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said that Israel is preparing to absorb Alawite refugees once the Assad regime falls, but President Shimon Peres, in an interview on CNN today, wanted to make it absolutely clear that not a single Syrian is welcome in the Jewish state.

“What will happen if Syrian refugees try to cross the Israeli border? Will you help them?” CNN asked Peres.

“No,” he replied.

“Will you shoot them?”

“We will prevent them. I mean, you don’t go straight to the rifle. There are other means to prevent them. We should prevent it. Because it will be a double tragedy for them and for us. They will become homeless and we shall become defenseless.”

“If the Syrians start to come over the border, will you stop them by force?”

“First of all, until now none of them asked to come in,” Peres said. “If they will come by force, we shall stop them by force. If they shall come in without force, we shall stop them the way any country defended her border with civilian means.”

When CNN noted that the potential refugees are trying to escape bloodshed in their own country, not invade Israel, Peres said, “If they want to escape, they first of all have to appeal, ask for permission. None of them did it.”

With Israel facing a potential influx of refugees, Peres said although no Syrians have tried to enter the country, Israel would not help any refugees who want to cross the border and would use force against any armed individuals.

“If they will come by force, we shall stop them by force,” Peres said. “If they shall come in without force, we shall stop them the way any country defended her border with civilian means.”

Michael Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, writes: Syria’s border with Israel is the last national boundary that refugees so far have not crossed seeking safety, and to close this potential avenue of escape is unconscionable. With UNSMIS likely to depart within weeks — and with even the extension of the mission unlikely to stop refugees from having to flee — the need for safe havens will only increase. Four of the five countries that share borders with Syria have made the decision to keep the routes to safety open. Israel should do the same out of respect for international humanitarian principles.

Out of the 114,000 registered Syrian refugees in the region, Jordan and Lebanon have received well over half — largely into some of their most resource-poor areas along the Syrian border. When I visited both countries recently, officials, villagers, and aid workers spoke of having reached saturation point. Their capacity to host more Syrians was running out, and they did not know what they would do to protect them going forward.

That was in early June. Since that time, thousands more Syrians have crossed the borders, and Lebanon and Jordan are still struggling to make good-faith efforts to accommodate them.

The world is searching desperately — and rightly so — for ways to get humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians inside Syria. So far those efforts have been effectively blocked, while a handful of aid agencies inside the country battle to help those who are trapped however they can. But while the world continues to grapple with how to get greater access in Syria, we must keep in mind that those who have already fled can actually be helped right now. The most basic way the world can assist Syria’s battered population is to allow them to escape the violence by whatever path is most expedient for them.

The people of Israel know what it is to be vulnerable; to be refugees. Their country now has an opportunity to show just how deep that understanding really is. Everyone deserves a safe haven in their time of need, even — or perhaps especially — when it comes from an unlikely source.

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