As Region Scrambles to Shelter Syrians, Israel Shuts the Door

Syria's border with Israel is the last national boundary that refugees so far have not crossed seeking safety, and to close this potential avenue of escape is unconscionable.
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Last week's showdown over sanctions in the UN Security Council demonstrated once again that the world can't agree on how to stop the bloodshed in Syria -- which raises the question, "Whither Syria?" Or, perhaps more importantly, "Whither the Syrians?"

The UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), which has struggled for weeks to contain and reverse the conflict, was renewed for a "final period of 30 days" just days ago. But it is hard to imagine that this will make a difference, given how little the mission has achieved so far. Moreover, recent events in Damascus suggest that the violence is sure to continue, meaning that ever-larger numbers of Syrians will need protection as they flee into neighboring countries.

It is therefore disappointing to hear that one country bordering Syria is planning to prevent Syrians from entering its territory. Speaking at a military post in the disputed Golan Heights last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters that if large number of Syrians attempted to seek refuge in Israel, "we will stop them."

Syria's border with Israel is the last national boundary that refugees so far have not crossed seeking safety, and to close this potential avenue of escape is unconscionable. With UNSMIS likely to depart within weeks -- and with even the extension of the mission unlikely to stop refugees from having to flee -- the need for safe havens will only increase. Four of the five countries that share borders with Syria have made the decision to keep the routes to safety open. Israel should do the same out of respect for international humanitarian principles.

Out of the 114,000 registered Syrian refugees in the region, Jordan and Lebanon have received well over half -- largely into some of their most resource-poor areas along the Syrian border. When I visited both countries recently, officials, villagers, and aid workers spoke of having reached saturation point. Their capacity to host more Syrians was running out, and they did not know what they would do to protect them going forward.

That was in early June. Since that time, thousands more Syrians have crossed the borders, and Lebanon and Jordan are still struggling to make good-faith efforts to accommodate them.

The world is searching desperately -- and rightly so -- for ways to get humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians inside Syria. So far those efforts have been effectively blocked, while a handful of aid agencies inside the country battle to help those who are trapped however they can. But while the world continues to grapple with how to get greater access in Syria, we must keep in mind that those who have already fled can actually be helped right now. The most basic way the world can assist Syria's battered population is to allow them to escape the violence by whatever path is most expedient for them.

The people of Israel know what it is to be vulnerable; to be refugees. Their country now has an opportunity to show just how deep that understanding really is. Everyone deserves a safe haven in their time of need, even -- or perhaps especially -- when it comes from an unlikely source.

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