The head of the army’s program to provide assistance to southern Syria said Sunday that he does not expect large numbers of Syrians to attempt to breach the border and seek refuge inside Israel, in response to a renewed offensive by dictator Bashar Assad, which has killed dozens and displaced over 150,000 people.
“Syrians will not run to the fence,” said Lt. Col. “Aleph,” who could only be recognized by his rank and first letter of his Hebrew name for security reasons.
“First of all, we will not allow it. Second, there is a big, big difference between getting help from Israel, getting treated in Israel, and coming to live in Israel,” he said.
This contradicted claims made by a number of analysts and researchers, who have said that Syrians have told them that they would indeed be interested in seeking refuge in Israel if it were possible.
Asked about these comments, Aleph said he was “glad to hear it,” since it meant that the Jewish state was being seen in a better light by Syrians, but dismissed them as anecdotal, noting that none of the people allowed into Israel have formally requested asylum.
In the past week, the Israeli military, as well as the defense minister and prime minister, stated unequivocally that Israel will not take in Syrian refugees, but will try to provide humanitarian assistance.
Aleph said the military has seen thousands of Syrians streaming toward the Israeli border in the past week and a half, since Assad began his campaign in the nearby Daraa province, aided by the Russian air force and Iran-backed Shiite militias.
— HD (@HarelDan) June 30, 2018
“We have seen displaced people [setting up] camps near the Israeli border. It’s not to the border, it’s villages near the border,” said the IDF officer, noting that many of these are over a kilometer (more than half a mile) away from the security fence.
Since 2016, Aleph and his soldiers have managed Operation Good Neighbor, a project designed to help send humanitarian aid and other forms of assistance into Syria. Israel has also provided medical treatment and other forms of help to Syrians affected by the civil war, since at least 2013, but in a less organized fashion.
“It is a moral thing for us as Jews,” Aleph told reporters in a phone briefing.
According to the officer, since the start of Operation Good Neighbor, the Israel Defense Forces has performed approximately 700 humanitarian assistance operations. Aleph said that his soldiers do not enter Syrian territory, but go only as far as the security fence, where they hand off the aid or pick up wounded Syrians for treatment in Israel.
Since Assad’s renewed offensive began last month, the Israeli military has delivered 30 tons of food, 30 tons of clothes and tons of medical supplies, Aleph said. as tens of thousands of people traveled toward the Israeli border to flee the Syrian and Russian military’s intensive bombing campaign.
The camps set up in the area typically lack access to fresh water, electricity and other basic needs. They are often filled beyond capacity, forcing people to sleep outside.
“People came with nothing,” Aleph said. “So we have done some humanitarian operations. We brought in tents so they can sit and sleep not under the sky and sun.”
A portion of the humanitarian assistance the Israeli military delivered to southwestern Syria was provided by Arab countries, the officer said, refraining from identifying the nations, as he said it would be “complicated” for them to be known to be cooperating with the Jewish state.
The rest of the aid was provided by Israeli and American non-governmental organizations, he said.
The labels on the food and other goods were all in Hebrew, making it clear the country of origin, Aleph added.
The officer stressed that the Good Neighbor program, which began in 2016 and was publicly revealed in 2017, was only involved in providing humanitarian aid and helping evacuate wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals and clinics.
“We don’t deal with military assistance, only with humanitarian aid,” he said.
Asked if the local Syrian officials were aware that Israel would not be providing military support, Aleph said he believed so.
“I think that they know it. We are always speaking to them and telling them that we are helping them and the citizens, and providing humanitarian aid, but we will not interfere,” he said.
“We’re not getting involved. We’re not helping this side or that side,” he said, repeating Israel’s long-time non-intervention policy toward Syria.
However, Aleph noted that the area around the border with Israel has nevertheless been far calmer than other parts of Syria’s Daraa and Quneitra provinces.
On Sunday, the military announced that it had sent reinforcements to the Golan Heights, as the fighting picked up in Syria and was only expected to intensify.
“I can’t say this is a buffer zone. I can just say that in the past year, there were fewer attacks in these villages than in other areas,” he said.
On Friday, as part of the humanitarian aid programs, soldiers from the army’s 210th Bashan Division helped bring six severely injured Syrians into Israel for treatment, including four children who were reportedly orphaned in the aerial bombing campaign being conducted by Assad and Russia.
“We saved their lives on the border,” Aleph said.
After providing first aid at the crossing, the wounded Syrians were taken to the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya for treatment.
The two men who were brought over were of so-called “fighting age,” one 19 years old, the other 25 years old.
According to Aleph, the military did not ask if they were involved in the battles or not.
“I won’t ask him, are you a fighter or not? It’s just a very seriously wounded human being and I will help them,” the officer said.
Aleph stressed the moral considerations driving Israel’s humanitarian aid programs for southern Syria, saying that providing assistance to these civilians facing a merciless onslaught is “the most impressive thing that a human being can do.”
However, he acknowledged that a secondary motivator for Operation Good Neighbor is the desire to win over the hearts and minds of Syrians, who have long been taught that Israel is a “monster.”
Aleph said he believes that thousands of Syrians will retain some positive attitudes toward Israel, no matter the outcome of Assad’s campaign.
“Nobody can erase what we did in the past six years,” he said. “I don’t think that children who came for a heart operation and we saved their lives or the thousands of people who ate Israeli food, that they would forget Israel so quickly.”
Since 2013, Israel has provided medical treatment to some 4,800 people, either in field hospitals on the border or in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel.
According to the army, approximately half of those treated have been children, one-third were men, and the remaining 17 percent were women.
In addition, Israel also worked with international aid organizations to open a clinic along the border in 2017 as part of Operation Good Neighbor. Since its opening last year, the clinic has treated some 6,000 Syrian patients.
Hundreds of tons of food, medical equipment, clothing and diesel fuel have also been sent across the border.
The IDF also facilitated the construction of two clinics within Syria, which are run by locals and NGO workers. This includes logistical coordination and sending over building materials and medical equipment, the army has said.