Priti Patel visited a hospital that treats jihadis – this is in Israel's interests, but not the UK’s

The former Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon has publicly confirmed that Israel was treating fighters under a deal to help protect the border

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Thursday 09 November 2017 17:03 GMT
Priti Patel leaves 10 Downing Street through the back entrance after resigning from her position
Priti Patel leaves 10 Downing Street through the back entrance after resigning from her position (EPA)

Syrian patients, young and old, many with severe injuries, are being operated on by doctors in Israel; they are often provided with medicine to take back across the border; some return later for further treatment.

This has been going on for a while and Priti Patel could have seen it taking place at the Ziv Medical Centre, in Safed, in Golan or a number of other hospitals like the Western Galilee in Nahariya. She could have gone there with necessary clearance without having to be accompanied by Israeli government officials.

Instead the former DfID Secretary chose to go to an Israeli army field hospital on the Golan Heights where a similar service is provided by military personnel. She was taken to the facility, barred to the general public, by Israeli officials. Afterwards she asked civil servants at her department to examine whether British aid money for Syrian humanitarian operations can be diverted to the Israeli military.

The UK does not recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. Patel had broken the protocol that British ministers and officials do not go to the Golan, and certainly not Israeli military facilities there, with Israeli officials. Furthermore, she did not tell the Foreign Office or Downing Street about the visit. The news that it took place was broken by the Haaretz newspaper.

No 10 said in a statement: “The Secretary of State did discuss potential ways to provide medical support for Syrian refugees who are wounded and who cross into the Golan for aid. The Israeli army runs field hospitals there for Syrians wounded in the civil war. But there is no change in policy in the area. The UK does not provide any financial support for the Israeli army.”

Priti Patel must have been aware of UK policy on this issue. So would the Israeli government. It is highly surprising if both she and they thought such a visit could be kept secret. Similarly it is difficult to believe that they would be unaware of the repercussions when news of it did come out.

There is another important factor in this. More than 2,000 injured Syrians are being treated in Israeli hospitals. Although they include civilians, families, the majority of them are now men of fighting age: and their numbers are growing. Many are rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria, including members of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

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I have met patients at the Israeli hospitals who make little secret of belonging to hardline jihadi groups. There have been scuffles in some wards between extremist and moderate fighters. Not all of those treated are grateful for the medical care they receive, some have threatened staff: “We will come back and slaughter you all.”

But, crucially for the Israelis, the jihadi groups are fighting the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israel’s mortal enemies, whose militia is in Syria alongside the Iranians and Russians, propping up the Assad regime. During a visit earlier this year to the Golan I was told by a 19-year-old Israeli soldier from the field hospital that he makes no distinction between those who come seeking help. “I don’t know and I don’t care, my job is to do the best I can to help anyone who arrives here injured.” But, he acknowledged later, that it was Hezbollah who are the obvious enemy.

A major in the intelligence corps pointed out that missiles coming across the border “have been from the regime side, with their Iranian and Hezbollah contingents, not from the rebels”. In Syria, she added “the West thinks Sunni terrorists are worse than Shia terrorists. We don’t make that distinction.”

But the reality is that the Israelis do make a distinction, they are siding with the Sunni groups against the common enemy – the Assad regime, Hezbollah and the Iranians. The former Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon has publicly confirmed that Israel was treating these fighters under a deal to help protect the border.

This makes sense to the Israelis on the basis of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. But the view from the West, as the Israeli major pointed out, is very different. It is the Sunni extremists of Syria’s civil war, not the Shias, who have carried out terrorist attacks on the streets of London and Paris, Berlin and Barcelona. It is an ongoing threat which will not diminish anytime soon with Isis and al-Nusra taking jihad to the West as they lose territory in Syria and Iraq.

The overall aim of British humanitarian aid must be to try and ensure that it reaches all communities suffering in the Syrian devastation. Diverting money to the Israeli military medical programme in the Golan will not be the best way of achieving this. Priti Patel, one would have thought, would have understood that.

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