Chemical attack in Syria outrages Israelis

Following the suspected chemical attack, a man carries a child into a makeshift hospital in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Photo: Edlib Media Center, via AP

AS Israel fell silent this week to remember millions gassed during the Holocaust, next door in Syria, once again lethal chemicals had been used to kill innocents.

It is just over 65 kilometres from Israel to Douma, where a toxic attack has killed an estimated 70 people, injured many others, and provided the world with a reminder of the devastation that man can wreak with chemicals.

In the thick of preparations for Yom Hashoah the chairman of Yad Vashem, Avner Shalev, released a statement warning that methods put in place post-Holocaust to prevent tragedies seem to be ineffective.

He said that in the light of “horrific images emanating from Syria” it seems that “the mechanisms and international bodies developed after the Holocaust to prevent the recurrence of crimes against humanity are failing.”

According to Shalev, “the terrible scenes we are witnessing, right across our border, are a result of and continue to occur due to the indifference of the world.”

Israel is coy on suggestions that it was behind what seems to have been a retaliatory strike, carried out soon after Saturday’s chemical attack, against a Syrian air base.

But as Russia, Syria and Iran pointed fingers at the Jewish State, a former Israeli Air Force commander said it is likely that Jerusalem did hit the Syrian airfield.

The circumstances point to the strike being Israeli, said Eitan Ben-Eliahu, who headed the Air Force from 1996 to 2000, adding that the chemical attack “could not have been allowed to pass without a response”.

There were lots of calls in Israel for Assad to pay a heavy price for his suspected use of chemical weapons.

“What is happening in Syria is genocide of women and children in its cruelest form, using weapons of mass destruction,” said Yitzchak Yosef, one of Israel’s two chief rabbis.

There was outrage in the government and on the opposition benches. Housing Minister Yoav Galant called Syrian President Bashar Assad the “angel of death,” while opposition leader Isaac Herzog called him “the butcher of Damascus”.

Some reports are suggesting that Israel carried out the attack and informed America first — but kept Russia, a key supporter of the Syrians who Israel has informed of previous strikes, in the dark.

The latest events pose major challenges for Israel’s relationship with Russia, which Jerusalem has been keen to sustain despite all that is happening in Syria.

Russia is increasingly being held responsible for acts of the Syrian regime, and America’s ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on Monday that Russia could stop the “senseless slaughter” if it wanted and its hands are “covered in the blood of Syrian children”.

In Moscow, there is no criticism of Syria — just anger towards Israel for allegedly striking the Syrian air base. The Russian government summoned Israel’s ambassador Gary Koren on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

Meanwhile, Iran is threatening to respond to Israel’s “crime”, meaning allegedly hitting the air base – an installation that is thought to have been important to Iran.

Many Israelis, including the general public writing on social media, religious leaders like Yosef, and retired military chiefs and politicians, felt that the lesson of Yom Hashoah was staring them in the face.

“As we approach Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah, Israel should clarify that it takes moral stance against killers who use weapons of mass murder against civilians,” declared former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.

He was speaking before news of the attack on the Syria air base, but was thinking along similar lines, saying that action should be taken to ground Assad’s helicopter fleet. Yadlin called for US response that “damages Assad’s ability to produce and launch chemical weapons.”

Yosef spoke about the Holocaust, saying: “As Jews who have experienced genocide, as Jews whose Torah is a light to the nations, it is our moral obligation to try and stop this murder.”

He referenced the recent confirmation that Israel was behind the strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, saying that stopping the murder “is an obligation no less important than the moral obligation to destroy the nuclear reactor in Syria.”

Shalev also issued a call for action. “I call on the global community not to stand on the sidelines, but to act determinedly to put an end to the human suffering and provide humanitarian aid to the victims,” he said.

Minister of Constuction Yosef Galant, former head of the IDF’s Southern Command, expressed dismay that Assad is on a political high as his people are suffering — and suggested that he favours taking him down.

“Assad is the Syrian angel of death, and five days before Yom Hashoah, the world receive another reminder of this. The murderer from Damascus is still in heaven. The world would be a better place without Assad.”
He insisted, “World leaders must intervene — and fast.”

It is unclear how world leaders will act. While US President Donald Trump has expressed a desire to pull US soldiers out of Syria, he also thinks Syria should pay a “big price” for the chemical attack. As of press time he was planning to make some “major decisions”.

Asked about the possibility of military action, Trump said: “Nothing is off the table.”

Haley believes that this incident is going to be a test for the UN Security Council, which she has criticised for lambasting Israel while failing to deal with other matters.

“History will record this as the moment when the Security Council either discharged its duty or demonstrated its utter and complete failure to protect the people of Syria,” she said, adding: “Either way, the United States will respond.”

Thomas Markram of the UN office that deals with disarmament affairs, told the Security Council: “The use of chemical weapons is unjustifiable. Those responsible must be held to account.” But there is significant scepticism about the UN’s abilities.

Syria will next month chair the very UN disarmament forum that produced the treaty banning chemical weapons.

“Having the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad preside over global chemical and nuclear weapons disarmament will be like putting a serial rapist in charge of a women’s shelter,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of the NGO United Nations Watch.

NATHAN JEFFAY