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‘There Are So Many Other Threats to Israel’

Jewish and Arab Israelis shrugging off threat of Syrian war

Batya Ungar-Sargon
August 30, 2013
Israeli citizens gather at central post office in Tel-Aviv to change and pick up gas mask as tension surrounding the Syria crisis escalates, on August 28, 2013 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
Israeli citizens gather at central post office in Tel-Aviv to change and pick up gas mask as tension surrounding the Syria crisis escalates, on August 28, 2013 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Images of Israelis flooding post offices for gas masks and coming to blows over them is in direct opposition to the feel of the streets of Jaffa’s Old City this week, where a calm prevailed over the Yehuda Marguza Street as afternoon turned to dusk. In a restaurant a couple finished a meal, alternately speaking in hushed tones and staring in different directions. An old woman sat in front of the entrance to a stone walkway, waving people through.

After two years of civil war in Syria, Jewish and Arab Israelis alike and their peers in the West Bank—all seem to agree on one thing: in a situation with no good solutions, strikes against the Assad regime won’t fix much, even if they destroy Assad.

Jewish Israelis seemed jaded or just too preoccupied with other threats small and large to worry much. At the Yafa Café and Bookstore, Yoav Kapshuk, a 35-year-old doctoral student of political science who lives in Jaffa, said he already has a gas mask. “But I don’t think I’ll need it,” he told me. “There are so many other threats to Israel in our everyday life.” Kapshuk shrugged. “Maybe if a war starts, I will feel more afraid.”


But the Arab Israelis I spoke to tended to see the conflict in Syria in a larger context, an instance of the West’s continuous attempts to dominate and intervene in the Middle East. U.S. intervention was thus viewed as part and parcel of this larger narrative. Michel el-Raheb, one of the cafe’s owners, took me outside and showed me a relief painted on a wall—a caricature of the artist Naji Al-Ali who was killed in London in 1987. Next to al-Ali’s portrait was one of his comics. Two men stand in discussion. A cloud emerges from one: “Are you Muslim or Christian? Sunni or Shia? Druze or Alawite? Orthodox or Catholic?” el-Raheb translated. “And the other one, he answers: ‘I’m Arab, you ass.” He smiled grimly. “What happens in wars is because of these sorts of things.”

Are these Assad’s final days? He waved me off the question. “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Assad is a symbol. What matters is Syria, and the West is going to bring Syria down. If Assad dies, does it help? Check mate? Game over? I don’t think so. It doesn’t hang on one man.”


In front of the King David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City, I caught up with Ariel, a 31-year-old business manager and resident of the Old City, who agreed to speak to me while he waited for a friend. He wore a dark knitted yarmulka and opaque sunglasses. I asked him who is in the right: the rebels or Assad. “There’s no good or bad side. Both sides are committing war crimes. There’s no right side. Of course, a dictatorship is not just, but violence is not a good way to change a dictatorship.” What if the rebels win? “In the end, they will win,” Ariel said. “It’s just a question of time. They won’t be friendlier to Israel than Assad, nor than our other neighbors. But we’re used to it.”

A group of five seminary girls from the southern town of Netivot, dressed in floor-length denim skirts and long-sleeve white shirts under short-sleeve blouses, were equally cavalier. “Everything is sababa,” one of them said. Why aren’t they afraid? “Because God is looking after us,” one of them said. So it has nothing to do with politics? They live in Netivot, they explained. They also don’t have gas masks. “I heard yesterday that even if they give out all the gas masks, only 60 percent of the people will have one,” said one of the girls. Doesn’t she want to be in that 60 percent? Nah—she is from Netivot, she explained again. “We get bombs there, so we are used to it.”


In Ramallah, the weekend traffic jams had already started by Thursday afternoon and the streets were filled with people walking to and from work. On the eighth floor of the Bakri Building on Nachda Street, in Ramallah’s city center, I spoke to the Palestinian journalist Hassan Dandis. He explained to me that he supports Assad and his regime as the legitimate government of Syria. If he has a fear, Dandis said, it’s not of what Assad might do—it’s of the unintended consequences of Western efforts to punish the dictator. “If the United States intervenes, they will get deeply involved militarily,” he said. “There will be a regional war, and an escalation on both sides. Hezbollah and Iran will get involved.”

Back in Jerusalem, I met with Khaled Kurdy, a freelance journalist who was born in the Old City. We sat in a café in the Armenian Quarter on low stools and sipped fragrant, sweet black coffee. Khaled sees Syria as a battleground for a second Cold War. He said the French have been feeding the rebels from day one, and without the weapons provided from international governments, the war would have ended in a month. “It’s a dirty game,” he said, “feeding the rebels like a lamb for the slaughter.” He is radically against intervention, which he believes reflects the geopolitical interests of the interveners. “It’s the United States against Russia,” Kurdy told me. “They just want to prove whose weapons are stronger. I don’t support Assad, but to accept intervention is like accepting a woman to be raped as a revenge against her husband.” He laughed at his own analogy. “That’s a good sentence, no?” He repeated it.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.