The scale of destruction and death caused by the Syrian civil war has struck an old, dark chord in the hearts of many Israelis. For more than half a decade, a war has raged just across the border from the Jewish state, reportedly claiming the lives of nearly half a million souls and driving millions more from their homes.
The Israeli government has declared itself neutral in the complex conflict, careful not to get sucked into the violent whirlwind threatening the whole region. But Israel has not avoided the gravitational pull of the massive humanitarian catastrophe at its own doorstep.
Israel and its northern neighbor have formally been at war for seven decades. But following the outbreak of the civil war, the Jewish state has been treating Syrian casualties, including wounded fighters. More than 2,000 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals since 2013, according to the Israeli army. Still, Israeli civilians, who are forbidden to enter Syria both under Israeli and Syrian law, have had little ability to act on any sympathy they may feel for the war-struck nation.
But two recent Israeli civilian initiatives, driven by the oath of “never again” — understood by Jews worldwide as a moral imperative to prevent any genocide after the Holocaust — are giving everyday Israelis a chance to help.
A Godless man and the ‘work of God’
In 2010, after visiting a Holocaust museum, Israeli-American Moti Kahana realized the Romanian government, and not the Nazis, was responsible for killing his family in the city of Iași during the Holocaust. Then he looked at the Middle East and saw “history was repeating itself.” Determined to make a difference, he sold his US car rental company.
Kahana described himself in a recent interview in Jerusalem with The Times of Israel as a godless man looking for God. Indeed, he is working on a book entitled “Looking for God in Syria.” In the last five years, he says, he has spent over $2.2 million of his own money to get humanitarian aid to Syrians and push his idea for a safe zone in southern Syria.
Today Kahana is the founder and president of Amaliah, which in Hebrew means “the work of God.” The organization offers a number of humanitarian services for Syrians, including providing food, medical aid, drinking water and educational materials; coordinating visits to Israeli hospitals; holding women’s empowerment workshops; and pushing for an internationally backed safe zone in southern Syria.
Back in June, Kahana began working with the Israeli army to get the aid into the hands of Syrian civilians.
With the IDF behind him, in September, even when the UN was unable to transfer aid to Syrians during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha because it was too dangerous, the IDF transferred one ton of meat from Amaliah.
Since August, again with coordination of the IDF, Amaliah has brought in three busloads of Syrians — 120 kids — to be treated in Israeli hospitals.
The operation was documented by the media organization This Now, and the video has been viewed nearly five million times.
After the This Now clip, Kahana said, his charity raised over a million dollars in a week.
“It is amazing the support I am getting from Israelis. I am not capable of replying to everyone,” he said.
Kahana is currently on a mission to bus 10,000 Syrians into Israel for medical care during 2017.
The Israeli-American is also setting his charity’s sights beyond the borders of Syria in order to help refugees abroad.
Kahana says he was struck by the recent pictures coming out of Europe of Syrian refugees suffering in harsh winter conditions.
Sixty-two thousand Syrian and other migrants are stranded in Greece following the closure of borders by European countries to the north. Some 10,000 are in the Aegean islands, including on Lesbos, where there are currently 5,491 refugees.
In response, he instructed his charity to begin collecting supplies for the under-prepared refugees, which it did by setting up 50 drop-off spots around Israel. Code named Operation Blossom of Hope, the collection and delivery of the relief supplies was coordinated by Amaliah, and iAID, a new humanitarian initiative by former IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi.
The request made to iAID was specifically for critically needed winter clothing items such as coats, rain jackets, sweaters, trousers, boots, warm socks, sleeping bags and blankets.
On January 19, Kahana and a team of volunteers arrived in Greece with over one and a half tons of winter supplies, all donated by Israelis.
Approximately 50 Israelis helped in the enterprise. Members of the Derech Prat high school leadership movement did most of the collecting, sorting and boxing of the goods while volunteers from the What is Needed grassroots movement, founded by Gilit Kaufman and Nitzan Waisberg, coordinated operations.
A post on Kahana’s Facebook showed the supplies gathered in Israel before it was shipped off to Greece.
However, Kahana said, his most important goal isn’t to provide aid. Instead, his main aim is to help facilitate the creation of a safe zone in southern Syria, which would help Syrians there to rebuild Syrian civil society and allow proper medical care in Syria itself.
Kahana concentrates on southern Syria because there is where the moderate Free Syrian Army controls the most continuous land, so this region is mostly likely to host a more moderate civil society.
The Israeli-American said he is very much informed by Jewish history.
After millennia of the Jewish people having little military might, he said, “I’m the tiger now; I’m the lion. But I’m still here to help you.”
‘Just Beyond the Border’
In one month, an online crowdfunding campaign, “Just Beyond the Border,” has raised over $350,000 to bring much-needed emergency aid to the children of Syria — more than double its original aim.
The campaign’s title reflects the ideology behind it: that Israelis simply cannot ignore the horrors taking place in neighboring Syria.
Speaking to The Times of Israel recently, Yoav Yeivin, one of the lead organizers of the campaign who is also a Jerusalem city council member for the Hitorerut/Wake-Up Jerusalem movement, said he was inspired by his Holocaust survivor grandmother.
“I was raised with the understanding that apathy could be lethal,” he said.
According to Yeiven, many of those who donated to the campaign were also driven by the memory of the Holocaust.
For example, donor Gabby Gal wrote on the campaign’s website: “As a son of Holocaust survivors, I am proud to give to Syrian children in distress. I am proud because I feel that I am fulfilling the humanitarian commandment of my fathers destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, while the world was silent and didn’t lift a finger.”
The campaign itself was organized by a group of Israelis who first came together on Yom Kippur to pray for the victims of the war in Syria, Yeivin said.
But, he added, “We wanted to do more than just a statement. This is how the campaign started more than a month ago.”
The campaign is specifically geared to giving Syrian children aid, rather than adults; this includes children’s clothing, blankets, and baby food.
“Why children? The situation in Syria is very complicated, but the only thing we can say is that children should be left out of this game. They should not be blamed,” said Yeivin, noting that both the Syrian regime and most of the rebel opposition, which includes hardline Islamist groups like al-Qaeda’s Fateh al-Sham and Islamic State, are openly hostile to Israel.
Since Israel’s birth in 1948, it has been at open war with Syria, fighting three conventional wars against Damascus.
Another concern of the Israeli organizers of the campaign was that their aid could end up in the wrong hands.
Therefore, according to Yeivin, they chose to work with Israeli Flying Aid (IFA), an Israeli nonprofit which, according to its website, “specializes in bringing life-saving aid to communities affected by natural disasters and human conflict, especially where local regimes prevent entry from formal international humanitarian organizations.”
The organization has operated in conflict zones such as Pakistan, Burma, and Sudan.
After 3.5 years of cover story, aid group comes out as Israeli
Gal Lusky, CEO and founder of IFA, told The Times of Israel in a recent phone interview that her organization has been operating under the radar in Syria since 2011, due to a dual risk: the risk of death from Syrian militants, but also the risk of being prosecuted by the Israeli authorities for visiting an enemy country.
Lusky said IFA has trained almost 2,000 of the famous “white helmets,” volunteer search and rescue workers in Syria since 2012, and supplied them with “everything they needed.” She added that, aside from bringing tons of aid to Syrians, IFA has also trained 22 medical doctors and supplied tech training to print prosthetic limbs.
“We have decided that what’s gonna lead our missions is our values and conscience, and the needs of the victims, and not any governments or regimes,” she said.
For the first three and a half years, Lusky said, her Syrian colleagues did not know she was Israeli. She was using a cover story. But one night, while she was in Syria helping to move a convoy of aid, her group was nearly killed in barrel bombing attack by the Syrian regime.
She said she immediately thought about what would happen to her Syrian companions if the bomb had hit her convoy and then her cover story had been blown. “The Syrians working with me would be considered traitors.”
So she decided to leave Syria in order to reveal her identity in a neutral country.
After exposing her identity during a meeting in a hotel, one of her Syrian contacts stood up and said, “Now I understand. You are not even my friend. You are my enemy. After Assad, we are coming for you next.”
One of the other Syrians present at the meeting asked her why she had revealed her identity, knowing it could end their collaboration.
“We have been lying to each other for 65 years. It stops here. If you want to collaborate with us, you will bear the responsibility,” she told them.
A month later, Lusky said, she met with 60 representatives of this Syrian organization in another hotel, where they voted on whether to continue working with IAF.
“We signed a long document. On the left side, the Israeli flying aid’s signature with the star of David. On the right side, their organization’s name with the Syrian flag,” Lusky said.
Renee Ghert-Zand contributed to this report.