Israeli Arab Citizens Donate Millions for Refugees in Northern Syria
The aid collected in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority is transferred to Syrian refugees via Turkey
“Your donations have reached #Northern_Syria. One of the largest convoys of a charitable relief campaign has been launched to reach the needy and refugees and to protect them from the winter cold. #Igatha 48 – Islamic Movement.” This Facebook post was written by Sheikh Safwat Freij, the head of southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and it included a video showing trucks loaded with humanitarian aid donated by Israeli Arabs designated for internally displaced refugees in northern Syria.
During the last few weeks, this campaign waged by Igatha 48 – a charity arm of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel – has collected well over 8 million shekels or about $2.5 million to help the refugees in northern Syria. The funds and the goods are collected in mosques as well as through a designated bank account which is publicized in Arab-language media and on the Facebook pages of other charitable organizations in Israel’s Arab sector. The campaign gained immense popularity during a recent live broadcast donation effort via Facebook, when the mayor of Kafr Qasim made a personal donation of a few thousand shekels, sparking a “donations competition” among Arab cities and villages. Israeli media barely reported this countrywide campaign that included neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, big cities, small villages and Palestinian refugee camps.
Late last week, the United Nations warned that many of Syria’s nearly 3 million displaced persons and refugees face dire winter conditions after the region experienced record-low temperatures and a snowstorm. The humanitarian crisis in the country had entered its 11th year and, according to international relief organizations, the situation is far from getting better.
“The current campaign is just one of many,” said Ghazi Issa, chairman of the Igatha 48 charitable organization affiliated with the southern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel. Igatha is the Arabic word for relief. “We held a similar campaign last year, two years ago and so on. They usually take place in winter, since the Syrian winter is very cold and hard and the hardship of the refugees is growing,” Issa told The Media Line.
According to Issa, Igatha 48 also held similar relief campaigns for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and is recognized by the United Nations. All collected funds and goods are transferred to northern Syria through the charitable association and facilitated by the Turkish charitable organizations Khair al Umma and Tariq al-Haya that operate inside Syria, he says. The activists of Igatha do not cross the border, since under Israeli law Syria is regarded as an “enemy state”; they instead watch the trucks carrying the humanitarian aid as they cross the Turkish-Syrian border on their way to the refugees.
One of the charity’s most recent projects is a brand-new Syrian village called “Orange Jaffa.”
The Orange Jaffa village is located in the township of Basiqah in Idlib Province in northern Syria. In the first stage, Orange Jaffa will comprise 100 residential units, and the plan is to eventually create 500 residential units that will be connected to running water and electricity, replacing the tents that the refugees suffer in through the winter.
“This is a human matter. We are all brothers, we are one nation. If a person sees children that are freezing to death, he must move and do something. The issue is not just aiding Syria. It’s human compassion and mercy,” Freij told The Media Line.
“The people come with all kinds of donations – many donate between 5,000 and 7,000 shekels to provide water, heating, clothes, blankets, etc.,” Aed Bader, a Meretz party activist and an adviser to the mayor of Kafr Qasim. He added that Freij designated a huge two-story warehouse for this campaign and that: “People donate euro, dollars, gold jewelry and goods there. Also, the [Islamic] Movement has partnered with many businesses, for example, windmills or grocery shops, and now they are able to get their share of food staples, bags of flour.”
According to Bader, the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel took a lead in the relief campaign for northern Syria this year. However, the northern branch, which is banned in Israel, engages in its own donation campaign for Syrian refugees and displaced people. Ali Siam, a Palestinian journalist from Gaza, reported that one of the Murabitat, a political group of women affiliated with the northern branch who support the Al Aqsa Mosque had donated money to buy 10 houses for refugees in northern Syria.
We are performing humanitarian work and we do not differentiate between Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Jews or anyone else. A child is a child. When he is hungry and cold, he doesn’t think about borders and geopolitics. And so do we, we are just helping human beings.
As generous aid from Israeli Arab citizens – identified in Syrian and Turkish media as Palestinians of the “dakhel,” or inside the Green Line – pours into northern Syria, some Kurdish activists in Syria and abroad have become alarmed. One of the photos that was disseminated by the Eish be-karama, or Live in Dignity charity organization connected with Igatha 48 showed a mosque and a Quran study facility located in Afrin, once a Kurdish city in northeastern Syria that was mostly emptied of its Kurdish residents during a Turkish assault against the city in 2018. Today the city is a mostly Arab-Turkish town.
“We want to warn the good people in Israel who are sending aid to the refugees in Syria, that their donations might serve a political cause. They have to be aware of that and understand where the collected money goes,” said Dr. Kamal Sido, a Middle East consultant at the international Society for Threatened Peoples headquartered in Germany. A few months ago, Kurdish news outlet Rudaw published a story that also reported new Arab settlements being established near Afrin with the help of donations from Palestinians and Arab Israelis.
While it is clear that all the aid collected in Israel and in the PA is transferred via Turkey, which controls the northern border with Syria, and that there are organizational ties between the Islamic Movement’s southern branch and Turkish leadership, it is difficult to establish an intentional effort to channel the aid specifically to areas that were until recently populated by the Kurds.
Igatha 48’s Issa rejects such accusations. “We are performing humanitarian work and we do not differentiate between Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Jews or anyone else. A child is a child. When he is hungry and cold, he doesn’t think about borders and geopolitics. And so do we, we are just helping human beings,” Issa said.