Courageous Arab Politician says: Arabs Should Take on Refugees, not the West

For the first time an Arab politician has openly criticized the Arab governments’ behavior toward the current refugee crisis: Ayman Odeh, spokesman of Arab Israelis in the Knesset, says: Arab regimes have no interest in refugees. They have cheap, foreign labour at their hands and are solely interested in the advantage that the ongoing war might give them.

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One late night June this year, an Israeli ambulance approached the Syrian border. Protected by deep darkness, two severely wounded Syrian rebels were rushed into the car. Quietly but quickly the ambulance was making its way through a small Druze (small minority deriving from Islam) village in the north of Israel to bring those two to an Israeli hospital. Suddenly, a small group of men and women who were lurking in the dark stopped the ambulance. They dragged out viciously the two Syrians. In a horror movie scene they lynched one of them to death. That was a retaliation act in response to an attack few days earlier by Syrian rebel Islamists on a Druze village in Syria. A small story that can serve as a metaphor to the complexity of the Arab and Muslim world reaction to the plight of the Syrian refugees.

One of the more surprising aspects of this reaction – or rather lack of it – is the total silence of the Arab world. By now, it seems totally natural for the victims of the brutal war in Syria to seek asylum in Europe, especially Germany. Yet the question remains why Arab countries do not become even an option for the refugees, not even the rich ones among them. Truth has to be said- they are not even invited. The Arab and the Muslim world watches from distance the tragedy of their brothers in faith unfolding in front of their eyes – and remain distant and indifferent. With the exception of Jordan Turkey who border on Syria and host millions of Syrian refugees in camps – nothing or very little is being done for them. It’s a rather cruel, but not really shocking. The Arab world has done close to zero for the more veteran Palestinian refugees in refugee camps, in Gaza – physically and financially. Other than condemning Israel and blaming it for the misfortune- the involvement amounts to zero. Harsh lesson for the Syrians who now flock to Europe.

Pan –Arabism, once a flourishing modern movement for political unification among the Arab Nations is practically dead. The refugees are alone. “What kind of commitment do you expect from those countries?” asks Prof. Sammy Smoocha, Israeli Sociologist, specialist in comparative ethnic relations. “Part of the Arab world is falling apart, and the rest of it has no interest in bringing in refugees. The Gulf States have a small Arab minority, and a majority of non- Arab foreign workers. They don’t need Arab refugees with aspirations to settle there, marry their women and demand citizenship. They don’t want it. Post-colonial Europe is a safer bet for the refugees”. Smoocha claims that Arab intellectuals are actually interested in Arab refugees spreading all over Europe – a demographic change that will bring them more political power and general influence on the future of Europe. That might develop into something like the Jewish Diaspora with anchors of power – in much bigger numbers.

In the midst of this ocean of Arab world indifference stands out even more surprisingly the silence of the Israeli Arab minority. Vocal and engaged in fights over so many other issues, their silence over the plight of the refugees speaks volumes. Even when the Israeli Jewish left calls upon the government to take in a limited number of Syrian refugees their Arab brothers in Israel say next to nothing. “Their politicians would never ask Israel to do anything that might make Israel look good”, says Prof. Aziz Haidar, an Israeli Arab, expert on Arab society and politics. That might be one way to explain it; there are more. “There is no Palestinian aspect to that war and no specific threat to Palestinians in Syria”, adds Prof. Smoocha another dimension.

Still, it is strange. The Arab minority in Israel (20 percent of the population), has now more political power than ever. Their “joint Arab list”- a weird combination of Islamists, nationalists and communists – is now the third biggest in the Israeli Parliament. As an active opposition, they put this power to good use, but of no use to the refugees. On the contrary – there is some underlying resentment that the world is now preoccupied with the war in Syria that overshadows the Palestinian issue. Even when a delegation of Arab Israeli members of the Israeli Parliament met recently with Abdallah, king of Jordan, and the Turkish President, Erdogan- they discussed all ills inflicted on them by Israel, as they claim; the refugees and the victims of the brutal war were not an issue to raise.

An insider from the Arab political grouping admits its tough issue for them. “It’s easy to feel now for the refugees of the war in Syria”, he says, “but what the Palestinian refugees who have been there since 1948? And yes, there are the different factions that make up the joint list, and there is no one political approach to this issue.

Even the issue that bothers those most – the indifference of the Arab world – is not openly discussed. This indifference is not only a matter of lack of solidarity with the Syrian refugees – for them it’s more so the reflection of where the Arab world really stands on the Palestinian issue as well. Here, in an exclusive interview to Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten the Head of the Joint Arab Party, PM Ayman Odeh breaks the silence for the first time, making a harsh statement. In response to the question about the indifference of the Arab world, he told DWN: “Arab regimes conduct a political struggle at the account of the Syrian people who pay the price that behavior; had they cared about the fate of the Syrian people, it would be them, not the West, taking in the refugees”. What he means is that promoting the regional self-interests of the different Arab regimes – matters to them much more than the fate of victims of this brutal war.

That reality is not going to change. Under the umbrella of Arab world indifference, Arab refugees will keep seeking rescue in Europe. And Europe, will have to learn to deal with it.


Lily Galili is one of the most renowned journalists in Israel. For many years she was working for Ha’aretz,  she was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and is now an author for I24News. Focus of her reportages is Israel’s ethnic minorities, Arabs, Druze and Russians. Lily Galili, who is currently living in Tel Aviv, also shows her committed to refugees privately and is a member of the Syrian Aid Committee.