Israel transferred several dozen tons of humanitarian aid to refugee encampments in southwestern Syria in an overnight operation late Thursday, as tens of thousands of Syrians are fleeing an offensive in neighboring Daraa province by Bashar Assad’s forces and the Russian military.
The IDF said it would likely continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the area, but insisted it would not allow Syrian refugees to cross the border.
“The IDF is monitoring what is going on in southern Syria and is prepared for a variety of scenarios, including continuing to provide humanitarian aid to fleeing Syrians. The IDF will not allow Syrian refugees into Israeli territory and will continue to act to protect Israel’s security interests,” the military said in a Hebrew-language statement on Friday.
The operation lasted “several hours,” the army said, and delivered some 300 tents, 13 tons of food, 15 tons of baby food, three pallets of medical supplies and 30 tons of clothes and shoes to the refugees.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said following the aid operation that Israel was “prepared to provide any humanitarian assistance to civilians, women and children,” but stressed that “we will not accept any Syrian refugees into our territory.”
Since the renewed attacks by pro-regime forces began earlier this month in the Daraa province, tens of thousands of Syrian civilians have been streaming to the nearby Israeli and Jordanian borders, seeking refuge.
A number of camps have been set up in the area, but these generally lack access to fresh water, electricity and other basic needs. In many cases, these camps are overflowing, without sufficient shelters. Some Syrians are reportedly sleeping outside at night.
The army said it shipped the supplies to four camps simultaneously in the southern and central Syrian Golan Heights.
“In these camps, located near the border, there are several thousand Syrians living in deteriorating conditions, without access to water, electricity, food sources or basic necessities. In recent days, there’s been an increase in the number of Syrians living in these camps,” the IDF said.
The refugees along the border are fleeing an offensive by Syrian government forces seeking to reclaim the strategic region that extends along the border with Jordan and the Israeli Golan Heights, and which was until recently part of a US-backed and negotiated truce.
Airstrikes pounded rebel-held areas in southwestern Syria on Thursday, killing at least 17 civilians in an underground shelter and driving thousands more from their homes, as scores of displaced people protested near the Israeli border demanding international protection.
Signaling that the humanitarian crisis is likely to deepen, UN officials said that because of the fighting, no aid has entered from Jordan to reach the estimated 50,000 people displaced since Tuesday. Jordan, which is already hosting 660,000 registered refugees, says it cannot accept any more and has sealed its border, despite appeals from aid groups.
Near the Golan Heights, scores of the newly-displaced raised banners in protest. Thousands have fled to the area, saying they thought the proximity to Israeli forces would deter Syrian air raids. One activist said the camps are about three kilometers (two miles) from the frontier.
Israel has been providing aid to southwestern Syria since 2013, including treating chronically ill children who have no access to hospitals, building clinics in Syria, and supplying hundreds of tons of food, medicine and clothing to war-ravaged villages across the border.
Since Syria disintegrated into a brutal civil war in 2011 that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, Israel has struggled with how to deal with the humanitarian disaster taking place on its doorstep, a dilemma made even more complicated by the fact that Israel and Syria remain officially at war.
Israel initially responded by providing medical treatment to Syrians wounded in the war who arrived at its border, treating more than 3,000 people in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel, since 2013.
But last year, the army revealed that since June 2016 it has quietly been working on Operation Good Neighbor, a massive multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation to keep thousands of Syrians who live along the border from starving or falling ill due to the lack of food and basic medical care.
In its first year, the operation saw over 600 Syrian children, accompanied by their mothers, come to Israel for treatment. The hundreds of tons of food, medical equipment and clothing sent across the border were clearly labeled in Hebrew and came from Israeli companies.
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.
The clinics are meant to support 80,000 Syrians living in the area near the Syrian city of Quneitra, just across the border.
Inside Israel, another clinic was constructed at the army’s Outpost 116, which is guarded by the IDF but staffed by NGO officials.
As part of the operation, the army has also stepped up the amount of humanitarian aid it transfers to Syria, in some cases dramatically.
According to IDF figures, the quantity of food sent to Syria increased tenfold last year, from a few dozen tons between 2013 and 2016 to 360 tons from 2016 to 2017.
The quantity of clothes, baby formula, medical supplies, diesel fuel and generators being transferred to Syrians have also significantly increased in that time.
Israel has also sent hundreds of tons of flour, oil, sugar, salt, canned beans and dry goods, as well as several cars and mules.
Most of the aid was donated by NGOs over the years, the army says, but some were also provided by the Israeli government directly.
AP contributed to this report.