Israel has reportedly halted its massive multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation providing Syrians with life-saving services, closing its border to fleeing civilians seeking medical care, as Syrian government forces complete their takeover of the area bordering Israel’s Golan Heights from rebel groups.
The decision represents the first time that the border will be completely closed to any Syrian civilians since Operation Good Neighbor was initiated five years ago, Channel 10 news reported Monday night.
Officials stressed, however, that the program has not been permanently shuttered and rather only “frozen” until the outcome of the Syrian government offensive is clear.
The Jewish state has treated thousands of people in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel, since 2013. Since 2016, as part of Operation Good Neighbor, more than 600 Syrian children, accompanied by their mothers, have come to Israel for treatment. Hundreds of tons of food, medical equipment and clothing have also been sent across the border to Syria.
Earlier this month, the Israeli military evacuated hundreds of Syrian “White Helmets” rescue workers and their families through Israel to Jordan at the request of Western countries.
The Israel Defense Forces said it engaged in the “out of the ordinary” gesture due to the “immediate risk” to the lives of the civilians, as Russian-backed regime forces closed in on the area. It stressed that it was not intervening in the ongoing fighting in Syria.
On Monday, the Syrian government regained control of the frontier with the Israeli Golan Heights for the first time in seven years, after Islamic State-linked militants gave up their last pocket of territory in the area.
The breakthrough, reported by state media and an opposition-linked war monitoring group, capped a six-week-long bloody campaign to retake the southwest corner of the country.
In response, Israel has reportedly asked Russia to ensure that Syrian government forces do not harm or massacre civilians during the fighting.
Rebels captured the area along the Golan Heights after a popular uprising broke out against Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011. An IS-linked outfit known as the Khaled bin Al-Waleed Army later seized the area from the opposition fighters.
Israel took control of 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized internationally.
The region is strategically important for Syria because it also controls a key highway from the Jordanian border to the capital, Damascus.
UN peacekeeping forces first deployed along the frontier in 1974 to separate Syrian and Israeli forces.
While largely keeping to the sidelines of the Syrian civil war, Israel has said it will not allow Iran or the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah to establish a permanent military presence near the frontier. Both are allied with Assad and have provided crucial military support to his forces.
Earlier Monday, Russia’s ambassador to Israel said in an interview that his country cannot force Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria, despite Israeli calls for Iran to leave the country altogether.
Speaking with Channel 10 news, Anatoly Viktorov said the Iranians are “playing a very, very important role in our common and joint efforts to eliminate terrorists in Syria.
“The Iranian presence in Syria… is fully legitimate according to the UN principles and the UN charter,” he added.
Viktorov said Russia can talk to its “Iranian friends” about a full withdrawal from Syria, as Israel demands, but “we cannot force them.”
He also did not confirm Israeli officials’ statement to the effect that Moscow offered to keep Iran at a distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the border, though he implied that Russia will not oppose continued Israeli airstrikes on Iranian bases in the country, Channel 10 said.
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