Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected a Wall Street Journal report claiming Israel provides financial aid to rebel groups in Syria.
“We do not interfere in this terribly bloody conflict. We do, however, provide humanitarian aid to young boys and girls,” Netanyahu said. “It is expensive, but we will continue to invest.”
Netanyahu was speaking on a visit to Ziv Medical Center in Safed, where a new radiotherapy department was opened Monday. Ziv has treated hundreds of victims of the Syrian civil war, and many more have been treated at a field hospital the IDF maintains at the Syrian border.
The prime minister said that more than a thousand Syrian men, women and children had been treated at Ziv. “They once saw us as enemies,” he said of these patients, “but here they realize more than ever that Israel is a moral bastion and a beacon of light in the region,” where “all are treated equally,” irrespective of their religion and origin.
Citing interviews with half a dozen rebel leaders and three persons familiar Israel’s undeclared policy, the Sunday report in the Journal claimed that Israel set up a special military unit in 2016 to oversee and coordinate the transfer of financial aid — valued at some $5,000 per month — to rebel forces opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian, Lebanese and Russian allies.
This “secret engagement,” the report said, is aimed to help ensure that forces friendly to Israel control the Syrian side of the northern Golan border. The aid, said the Journal, helps the groups pay salaries and buy weapons and ammunition.
A separate UN report, published last month, describes a series of meetings between Israeli military representatives and Syrian rebel leaders near the Syrian border, observed by UN peacekeepers.
The May report from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) of peacekeepers stated that “there has been a significant increase in interaction between Israel Defense Forces soldiers and individuals from the Bravo (Syrian) side.”
The UN report went on to cite 16 meetings it had observed taking place between the IDF and unknown officials on the Syrian side of the border in the past year.
Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian civil war, which broke out in March 2011, but has over the years acknowledged that it helps treat wounded Syrians who arrive at its border, and provides some of them with humanitarian assistance. It has also claimed a number of airstrikes in Syria it says were meant to prevent arch-foe Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weaponry from Iran via Damascus. Netanyahu has repeatedly confirmed that Israel was actively working to disrupt Hezbollah’s arms smuggling operations in Syria and build-up of capabilities on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
In response to the Wall Street Journal report, the IDF said Israel was “committed to securing the borders of Israel and preventing the establishment of terror cells and hostile forces… in addition to providing humanitarian aid to the Syrians living in the area.”
The rebel group Fursan al-Joulan has approximately 400 fighters in Quneitra province in the Syrian Golan Heights and is allied with at least four other rebel groups, who also receive Israeli assistance, the fighters told the newspaper. They added that roughly 800 rebel fighters in a dozen villages in the area rely on support from Israel, as do some of the thousands of civilians living there.
“Israel stood by our side in a heroic way,” a spokesman for Fursan al-Joulan, or Knights of the Golan, Moatasem al-Golani, told the Journal. “We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.”