By Ethan Dayan – Contributor
“- ‘Why are you crying?’
– ‘I was suspended from school, because I refused to salute the Zionist flag. This wasn’t the first time . . . I will never salute it. . .’ He ran to the street and his mother shouted to him: ‘stop, stop!’ He stopped, turned around and said: ‘What do you want?’ She said: ‘If you want to hurt your enemy, you must prepare for him.’” – Arabic Language, Grade 8, Vol. 1, 2017–18, p. 42.
“Treason and deception are part of the Jew’s attributes.” – Islamic Education, Grade 6, 2017–18, pp. 126–27
These are excerpts from two Syrian primary school curriculum textbooks. There’s more. For example, the only work of Shakespeare read by many Syrian children is the “Merchant of Venice”, well known for the character of “Shylock”, a greedy and devious Jew.
So, what does it mean for a child to grow up resenting another nation? We can easily imagine how they would absorb these toxic feelings and grow up to be another life wrapped up in the conflict – a mind that is deafened by the rage of their heart. When we read these, we might feel hopeless, as if antisemitism in the Middle East is a fact of life.
Allow me to explain why we would be wrong.
When I interviewed Lt. Col. Eyal Dror, this is exactly what I tried to understand. Is peace for Jews in the Middle East possible? Is striving for its institution a waste of time? Eyal organised and led Operation Good Neighbour, an Israeli initiative to provide aid to Syrian children displaced by the civil war. His story will convince you that peace is possible, but not because it is soft and naïvely optimistic – it isn’t. His story will convince you because it’s real. It required sacrifice of the highest degree and an intimate confrontation of hatred, all for a belief in a higher ideal – the sanctity of peace.
“We understood that there is a need on the other side of the fence. People were suffering. We decided to help them, by thinking that it might change the atmosphere and the stereotypes that Syrians have been taught for dozens of years against Israel. It was a one chance opportunity to meet Syrian people face-to-face without intervention from a Syrian political agenda.”
When I asked him about the part of the campaign he was most proud of, he talked about Operation ‘Doctor’s Visit’. “Its purpose was to give medical aid to children suffering from chronic diseases. We built a field hospital clinic. We ran ‘Doctor’s Visit’ 72 times, seeing 25 children once a week. We took them inside Israel to see expert doctors and orthopaedic specialists.”
These victories were not cheap. Every movement to save a life came at the risk of lives of the Israeli soldiers on the border. “We were operating in an area controlled by some of our bitter enemies like Hezbollah and ISIS. We were just 23 km from the Syrian regime. Every time I went down the fence, some of my enemies were watching me. Observing, collecting data, and simply had to decide to attack us or not.” It was not a confidential operation, and the Syrian villages were on higher terrain than the fence, a serious military disadvantage. The topography of the Golan heights also made traversal very dangerous for the vehicles. Especially in the winter at night there was constant rain, snow and fog. They could not see the road in front of them. Going to the fence required climbing and descending a mountain, which occurred almost every night.
Humanitarian supplies stacked at the fence
I asked Eyal how he tolerated these risks. What motivated him to risk his life for humanitarian aid? He told me that, on the one hand, he was a soldier. This was his job, and he had met greater risks serving in Gaza for 24 years. On the other hand, what motivated him to do his job every night in every condition was “meeting the Syrians and seeing how they were suffering… Their stories gave us the motivation to continue and to do more”.
“In the beginning, I was a soldier doing a mission. But when I saw the Syrian children, who are in the ages of my children, and you hear the stories and you hear their experiences. It’s a duty. It’s not even a question of if I should. It’s something that you feel you must do as a human being. We are human beings before anything else…”
An IDF soldier cradling a Syrian baby
“Anyone involved in the project will tell you that it’s a privilege – to risk your life to help the Syrians live.” “What was shocking for me was that when the Syrian children were playing and they fell, they didn’t cry. It’s a very strange thing. But the understanding was that they didn’t cry because they knew it was pointless. In Syria nobody cared.” “It was very satisfying to see the children smile. To get a picture from them, to get a hug. My commander won’t say to me that I’m a good officer, he will write a report and I will get another rank. But a hug from a child is not standard issue. To get a hug from a Syrian child is even more amazing because since he was born, he learned that we are the enemy and now he sees that we are not. He sees that we are human, and he knew that we were risking our lives.”
A drawing of the Israeli flag by a Syrian child. It says: Wiam (Arabic girl’s name) [heart] Abu Yaacob (Eyal’s Arabic name)
“Nobody forced us to do anything, but it is still an obligation. People should put aside all the politics to help people in need. If you have the opportunity, take it… I am really proud of my country and my army for making the decision to do so.”
Finally, I asked Eyal about how this experience affected him. He told me two things. Firstly, the project changed his perspective. “After spending three years with the Syrians, you learn to appreciate the small things in life, a safe home and a healthy family. I have food, I’m not hungry, my kids learn in school, and my refrigerator is always full. It is amazing to understand what is important in life.” Secondly, “On the larger scale, it is a huge reward for us that the Syrians we helped – part of our ‘enemy’ – now know that we are not an enemy to them, that we respect them and that we risk our lives to help them. I think this is a huge, huge benefit. Neither Syria nor Israel will disappear, so it’s good for us to learn to live in the region peacefully. Maybe in the future, Syrian soldiers will think twice before trying to shoot towards my country again.”
A child’s drawing of the Israeli and Syrian flags. Text reads: “Thank you for the people of Israel”
But, of course, there were negative reactions also. In November of 2019, Eyal was invited to speak at Warwick University. His event was bombarded by BDS activists attempting to shut down the talk. Eyal expressed to me that he would like nothing more than to engage in a dialogue with those who disagree with him, as he has done so many times in the past, but in this case, they used their freedom of speech to restrict his own. Even in the midst of this, a miracle occurred. “The first to condemn the BDS protesters at Warwick were Syrian refugees.”
Eyal’s message at its core is that dialogue is the most effective path to peace, and we should always strive to build dialogue whenever we can. Eyal’s story proves that it is always possible. Even those who are expected to hate the state of Israel have ended up defending it. Eyal has never shied away from speaking the truth, because he understands that the enemy is not the person who hates you – the enemy is the hatred itself. And Eyal is just the tip of the iceberg – there are many people working every day to break down the barriers of hate and ignorance. One example is Yoseph Haddad, an Israeli Christian Arab who founded ‘Together – Vouch For Each Other’, an organization that fosters peace and integration among different cultures and communities in Israel.
There is much to be hopeful for. “Arab leaders are finally understanding that Israel is not threatening them. Iran is [threatening them], and the peace agreement with UAE was just the beginning.” The road to reconciliation is long and complicated, but it is our duty to follow Eyal’s example and strive for it, nonetheless. Even when it seems hopeless – especially when it seems hopeless – we need to shine brighter in the pursuit of peace. Remember the drawing of the flag and let it reignite the dream. If all of our actions bring peace just one day closer, it will have been worth it.
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This interview has been edited minimally for length and clarity