Taking Israeli aid, Syrian rebel says crisis on Golan overrides old hatreds
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Video conference from Syria with reporters in Jerusalem

Taking Israeli aid, Syrian rebel says crisis on Golan overrides old hatreds

Militia commander says Jewish state's assistance is life-saving, as pro-regime groups, Islamic State besiege Syrian Golan

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A Syrian rebel commander, known only by his nom de guerre, Abu Hamad, speaks to journalists in Jerusalem from Syria via Skype on August 23, 2017. (Media Central)
A Syrian rebel commander, known only by his nom de guerre, Abu Hamad, speaks to journalists in Jerusalem from Syria via Skype on August 23, 2017. (Media Central)

Tens of thousands of Syrian civilians living on the Golan border are “between the hammer and the anvil,” hemmed in on one side by pro-regime fighters on one side and the Islamic State on the other, a commander of a Syrian rebel militia said Wednesday.

The Syrian commander, who would only go by his nom de guerre, Abu Hamad, said his group’s cooperation with Israel made it the target of criticism from the Iran-funded militias that are fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but humanitarian concerns superseded old hatreds.

“The Shiite militias claim we are traitors,” he said during a video conference with journalists, speaking through Skype from a well-furnished shack in the Quneitra area in the Syrian Golan to reporters at the offices of MediaCentral in Jerusalem.

Abu Hamad, who kept his face covered in order to protect his identity, also commented on the purported ceasefire that was brokered by the United States and Russia, saying that it was an empty declaration and that the fighting continues despite it.

Syrians walk carrying their belongings on August 22, 2017 after crossing the Syria-Jordan border near the town of Nasib as they return to their homes following a US-Russia ceasefire brokered in three southern provinces, Daraa, Quneitra, and Sweida earlier in the year. (AFP/Mohamad ABAZEED)
Syrians walk carrying their belongings on August 22, 2017 after crossing the Syria-Jordan border near the town of Nasib as they return to their homes following a US-Russia ceasefire brokered in three southern provinces, Daraa, Quneitra, and Sweida earlier in the year. (AFP/Mohamad ABAZEED)

According to the rebel commander, the only thing limiting the warfare is his group’s depleting stores of materiel.

Earlier this summer, the Israeli military revealed the scope of its humanitarian assistance to Syrians living on the Golan border.

The assistance began in 2013 with the IDF allowing wounded Syrians into Israel for medical treatment. But in the past year, the military launched Operation Good Neighbor, which dramatically increased the amount of assistance given 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 the war-ravaged villages across the border.

In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, IDF soldiers evacuate a wounded Syrian in the area of the Golan Heights. (Israel Defense Forces)
In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, IDF soldiers evacuate a wounded Syrian in the area of the Golan Heights. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military says its aid is coordinated through civilians and non-governmental organizations across the border, but Abu Hamad said that some militia groups are also in direct contact with Israel and receive support from the Jewish state, though he would not specify their names. He also declined to divulge the name of his own group, for fear it would be targeted for taking the aid.

Israel has never had good relations with Syria, but the situation grew worse following the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel took over the Golan Heights. In the minds of most Syrians, few allegations could be worse than reported collusion with the “Zionist entity.”

A picture taken from the Israeli side of the border shows smoke rising near the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights during fights between the rebels and the Syrian army, June 25, 2017. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
A picture taken from the Israeli side of the border shows smoke rising near the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights during fights between the rebels and the Syrian army, June 25, 2017. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

However, according to Abu Hamad, the concerns over being labeled a traitor take a backseat to the humanitarian crisis they are facing in the region.

“The situation is very bad,” he said simply.

In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, an IDF soldier attends to a Syrian infant as part of the army's 'Good Neighbor' program to provide humanitarian for Syrian civilians on the Syrian Golan Heights. (IDF spokesperson)
In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, an IDF soldier attends to a Syrian infant as part of the army’s ‘Good Neighbor’ program to provide humanitarian for Syrian civilians on the Syrian Golan Heights. (IDF spokesperson)

The rebel commander lamented the instability in the Quneitra area, where there has been a complete breakdown in civil society, meaning there is no law enforcement, no reliable supplies of food, water and electricity, and no education for the children.

“There is an entire ignored generation,” he said.

So while Abu Hamad said his group tries to tread a fine line as it relates to disclosing their cooperation with the Jewish state because of how it can be manipulated for propaganda purposes, he and the civilians in the region welcomed the aid and thanked Israel for its generosity.

They don’t necessarily hide the assistance — by removing Hebrew labels or by denying that it happens, for instance — but they don’t advertise it, he said.

Abu Hamad described the process of bringing people into Israel for medical treatment, using a wounded man they are now working to transport as an example.

In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, IDF soldiers treat a wounded Syrian in the area of the Golan Heights. (IDF spokesperson)
In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, IDF soldiers treat a wounded Syrian in the area of the Golan Heights. (IDF spokesperson)

In the past, Syrians would walk themselves to the border, if they were ambulatory, or would be brought by friends and relatives. Now, Abu Hamad said, there are contact people on the Syrian side who reach out to the Israelis, in order to make the process smoother.

“We call a man named al-Safouri. He calls the Israelis, and the Israelis decide,” he said.

According to Israeli military figures, the Jewish state has thus far treated approximately 4,000 Syrians since 2013. Over 3,000 of these were civilians and moderate rebel fighters who were injured in the fighting. The remaining were civilians, mostly children, who suffered from illnesses that were unrelated to the civil war, but were unable to receive the medical treatment they needed because of the fighting.

IDF soldiers stand next to food supplies being prepared as humanitarian aid for Syrian's impacted by the civil war in their country, July 19, 2017. (AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)
IDF soldiers stand next to food supplies being prepared as humanitarian aid for Syrian’s impacted by the civil war in their country, July 19, 2017. (AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)

In addition, hundreds of tons of food, medical equipment and clothing have also been sent across the border to Syria. The IDF is also 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.

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.

In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, IDF soldiers help a Syrian child as part of the army's 'Good Neighbor' program to provide humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians on the Syrian Golan Heights. (IDF spokesperson)
In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, IDF soldiers help a Syrian child as part of the army’s ‘Good Neighbor’ program to provide humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians on the Syrian Golan Heights. (IDF spokesperson)

The approximately 600 children who have come to Israel for treatment entered a few dozen at a time, traveling to the border with their mothers, where they were picked up on buses and brought to Israeli hospitals. They stay in Israel for anywhere from a few days to up to six months, leaving when their treatments are complete.

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.

Abu Hamad disputed this, saying that “everyone wants to move to Israel.”

Though it was not clear if he felt that such an agreement would be contingent upon Israel returning the Golan Heights to Syria, the rebel fighter said his group is in favor of a “comprehensive agreement” with the Jewish state.

This view confirms some of the military’s hopes about its humanitarian aid program.

Last month, the lieutenant colonel who runs Operation Good Neighbor, said that altering the Syrian people’s perceptions of Israel is one of the peripheral goals of the operation, though he stressed that the humanitarian concerns were the prime motivating factor.

In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, an IDF officer attends to a Syrian child as part of the army's 'Good Neighbor' program to provide humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians on the Syrian Golan Heights. (IDF spokesperson)
In this undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, an IDF officer attends to a Syrian child as part of the army’s ‘Good Neighbor’ program to provide humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians on the Syrian Golan Heights. (IDF spokesperson)

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.

In interviews released by the IDF, Syrian civilians told of their enormous gratitude for the aid that came from a country they had believed was their enemy.

“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.”

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