GOLAN HEIGHTS – The Israeli military on Wednesday unveiled the scope of its humanitarian assistance in Syria that has dramatically mushroomed over the last year to include treating chronically ill children who have no access to hospitals, building clinics in Syria, and supplying hundreds of tons of food, medicines and clothes to war-ravaged villages across the border.
Since Syria disintegrated in a brutal civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, Israel has struggled with how to deal with the humanitarian disaster taking place just across the border, 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, treating more than 3,000 people in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel since 2013.
But on Wednesday 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 starvation away from the thousands of Syrians who live along the border and provide basic medical treatment to those who cannot access it in Syria because of the war.
In the year since the operation was launched, over 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, clearly bearing Hebrew labels from Israeli companies.
The IDF is also currently facilitating the construction of two clinics within Syria, which will be run by locals and workers from NGOs. This includes logistical coordination and sending over building materials and medical equipment, according to the army.
These 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 is also being constructed. This one, being built at an army outpost that currently carries the bland name Outpost 116, will be guarded by the IDF but staffed entirely by NGO officials. It will be operated only during the day and is therefore meant to be used to treat Syrians suffering from less severe injuries.
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 has increased tenfold in the past year, from a few dozen tons between 2013 and 2016 to 360 tons in 2016 to 2017 alone.
The amount of clothes, baby formula, medical supplies, diesel fuel and generators being transferred to Syrians have also significantly increased in that time.
While the officers involved in the operation stressed Wednesday that there is no mass starvation on the border, they said there are food shortages, which drives up the price of bread and other essentials.
Israel, therefore, sends over hundreds of tons of flour, oil, sugar, salt, canned beans and dry goods. It has also sent 12,000 cases of baby formula and 1,800 packages of diapers.
Israel has also seen fit to send over eight cars and six mules, the military said.
According to the IDF, most of this humanitarian aid was donated by NGOs, but some was also provided by the Israeli government directly.
A senior officer in the Northern Brigade, who asked to remain nameless, would not provide a specific figure on how much this operation has cost the military, but said it was “huge.”
Buses, breakfast and hospital care
On a nearly weekly basis, dozens of children and their mothers arrive at the border fence. There they are picked up on buses and brought to a waiting area where they are greeted with a breakfast and refreshments before they are taken to Israeli hospitals for treatment.
They stay in the hospital for anywhere from a few days to up to six months, as was the case with one child who suffered from a particularly rare disorder that required specialized care, army officials said.
According to Col. Barak Hiram, head of the army’s Bashan Brigade, which is stationed on the Golan border, in addition to being helpful for obvious nutritional reasons, this welcoming breakfast also serves a more important function: showing the Syrians that the Israeli soldiers are not monsters.
Hiram, along with the lieutenant colonel who runs Operation Good Neighbor, said the Syrians often come to Israel with the view that Israel is “Satan.”
The lieutenant colonel, who asked that his name not be published for security reasons, said that altering that view is one of the peripheral goals of this operation, and stressed that the humanitarian concerns were the prime motivating factor.
The officer said he hoped providing this humanitarian aid would serve to sow “seeds of peace,” bringing down the level of hatred felt by Syrians against the Jewish state.
The Operation Good Neighbor commander said that he’d personally already seen the fruits of this year-old operation, recalling instances of grateful mothers thanking him, hugging the female soldiers involved and telling him that they’d never forget the care they received.
In interviews with Syrian civilians released by the IDF, they told of their enormous gratitude for the aid that came from a country they had believed was their enemy.
“Israel is the only country that has done something like this with the Syrians,” a wounded Syrian man who had been brought to Israel for treatment said. “Israel is the friend of the Syrian people, a humanitarian country.”
“They teach us that Israel is the country that hates us the most,” a Syrian woman who had received treatment said. “We came and saw with our own eyes what they are giving us here. Israel is everything to us as a result of what it is giving us.”
“In this difficult situation Israel stood by our side, helped us with everything that we need. We very much respect the people in Israel,” another woman said.
The names of the Syrian civilians were not given in the report to protect their identities.
Nothing to hide
The officers involved were hesitant Wednesday to discuss how exactly the coordination is conducted with Syrians across the border, but they said that this were done partially through NGOs in the area. Of course, an operation of this magnitude cannot be carried out from solely within Israeli borders.
The Operation Good Neighbor commander said he also maintains direct contact with civilian leadership on the other side of the Syrian border.
The senior officer in the Northern Brigade who asked to remain nameless said that Israelis are “always suspected of having something to hide” in terms of their motivations for providing humanitarian aid. He said that in this case, the Israeli government and military have no ulterior motives.
“We don’t have anything to hide. We have something to be proud of. And if that happens to improve our stability in the region, that’s also good,” he said.
Officers involved in the operation noted that the IDF does not gather intelligence from the Syrians who cross the border in order to make it clear that this is purely a humanitarian issue and to ensure that future wounded and sick Syrians do not feel discomfort at crossing into Israel for treatment.
The Operation Good Neighbor commander also said the determination to ensure the project is recognized as being on the up and up is also the reason why he and his soldiers focus on providing care to children.
Nearly from the start of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, there have been claims that Israel has been quietly backing rebel groups, specifically in southern Syria. There have even been allegations that Israel is backing rebel groups affiliated with the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorist groups.
While there have been more credible reports that Israel is secretly providing aid to moderate rebel groups that are fighting both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, Israel has officially remained entirely mum on the issue.
By focusing Operation Good Neighbor on children, the army can avoid similar allegations about its current humanitarian aid efforts.
“No one can say we’re helping terrorists,” the officer said simply.
The decision to treat children also came from a pragmatic reason, he added, namely that adults tend to have more complicated medical conditions than children.
For instance, he offered, a child might suffer from asthma, but be otherwise healthy, while an adult will suffer from asthma and sleep apnea and diabetes. By focusing on children’s simpler medical issues, he said, this humanitarian aid will not put as much of a strain on the Israeli health care system.
While the Israeli officers involved in the operation said that helping people is their prime concern, they recognized that there is a need to differentiate between wounded civilians and wounded combatants.
Col. Hiram would not specify how exactly Israeli officials identify the people who show up to the border fence to receive medical care, but said that they were taking care to ensure that no members of terrorist groups were being treated inside Israel.
Hiram did, however, recall an instance in which a pro-Assad Syrian was brought to Israel by a friend after he stepped on a landmine in order to receive medical attention. “The Syrians weren’t happy that we ‘kidnapped’ a Syrian citizen,” he said.
After the man was treated, he was returned to Syria.
The same is true of every Syrian person who comes to Israel for care. According to the head of Operation Good Neighbor, no Syrians have ever asked to remain in Israel. They’ve all wanted to “go back home,” he said.