The full extent of a massive humanitarian effort by Israel to assist thousands of Syrians on its northern border has been revealed.
Over the past six years, Israel has studiously avoided being dragged into the brutal civil war, while keeping a watchful eye on Iranian expansionism into the conflict-ravaged country and launching occasional strikes aimed at preventing the Islamic republic from transferring weapons to its allies in Hezbollah.
At the same time, the scale of the suffering inflicted on the Syrian people by a war which has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives and seen over 11 million forced from their homes has deeply disturbed much of the Israeli public.
In the early years of the conflict, Israel attempted to help the injured and wounded by establishing field hospitals on the border, while also transferring some of those more seriously wounded for treatment in hospitals in northern Israel.
However, the IDF recently announced that in June 2016 it launched Operation Good Neighbour, an altogether more ambitious and holistic programme of assistance. Run by the army’s Northern Command, its purpose, says the IDF chief of general staff, Lt Gen Gadi Eisenkot, is to assist the local population in Syria while also maintaining Israel’s policy of non-involvement in the conflict.
The main beneficiaries of the operation are the 200,000 residents of the Hauran region of southwestern Syria. While around 400 families live in tents on the border, many more live in villages or are homeless. One-third of those receiving aid are refugees, and half are under the age of 18.
The IDF claims that the operation aims to provide three main types of aid: medical, infrastructure and civilian assistance.
Over the past year, more than 600 Syrian children in need of urgent treatment have travelled to Israel with their mothers. Some stay in the country for up to six months. In all, the army estimates, more than 4,000 Syrians have been brought to Israel for medical care. Many are picked up by buses at the border between Israel and Syria – two countries which have officially been at war since the establishment of the Jewish state nearly seventy years ago – and taken to an IDF holding area where they are given breakfast before being taken to hospitals throughout the country.
Helping to provide medical care in Syria itself has also been a priority. Supplies of medicine and other equipment are transferred across the border, while the IDF is also providing logistical support, building materials and medical equipment to construct and kit out two clinics in Syria. These are targeted at the 80,000 Syrians who live near the border city of Quneitra. A third clinic is being built at a border outpost inside Israel.
Operation Good Neighbour is also attempting to provide much-needed infrastructure supplies. Four hundred and fifty thousand litres of fuel – to power heating, bakeries and water wells – have been transferred across the border, along with generators and water pipes. Materials for a temporary school have also been supplied.
There has also been a significant stepping up of civilian aid over the past year. Ten times as much food – 360 tonnes in all – is now being supplied than before the operation was launched. This increase is, in part, an attempt to stabilise soaring food prices caused by shortages. Twelve thousand packages of baby formula, 1,800 nappies, 12 tonnes of shoes and 55 tonnes of clothing have also been sent across the border. Much of this aid – some still bearing Hebrew labelling – has been donated by NGOs, although some has been provided directly by the Israeli government.
An IDF spokesperson has suggested that Operation Good Neighbour springs from two impulses. “Firstly, we have a moral imperative. We can’t stand by watching a severe humanitarian crisis without helping the innocent people stuck in the middle of the conflict. We also believe that the aid will ultimately create a less hostile environment across the border – and that will lead to improved Israel security.”
Certainly, in the midst of a catastrophic conflict, there are tiny signs of hope. One IDF commanderrecounted this week the first days of Operation Good Neighbour:
“Twenty-five children holding their mothers’ hands passed through the gates in what seemed like a modern Exodus. The phrase ‘The Syrians are at the border’ took on new meaning.
“You could see the suspicion in their eyes. Tired and barefoot in the darkness, they met IDF soldiers for the very first time, we who had been so demonised by their culture. After many conversations with quite a few Syrians, I have come to realize that it’s no myth: up until the day they received our help, many Syrians genuinely believed IDF soldiers had horns and tails.
“It was surreal to see a mother holding her little daughter’s hands, almost collapsing from weakness. Instinctively, one of the Golani soldiers on the scene noticed the woman stumble and leapt towards her, gathering the child up in his arms. Suddenly, it seemed the border had disappeared: it was a human moment shared between people, a moment of distress on the one hand and of compassion on the other. A moment I will never forget.”
One NGO which works with the IDF to supply aid via Operation Good Neighbour is the Multifaith Alliance, an umbrella group of some 90 faith-based organisations in the United States. Its director of humanitarian relief and regional relations is Shadi Martini, a Syrian doctor driven into exile by the Assad regime for refusing to collaborate with its security forces in reporting the names of injured people seeking hospital treatment. He agrees that working with Israelis on the relief effort has changed his perceptions; “You can find such humanity and empathy in people you thought were your enemies and at the same time, you can feel hatred from the people that you thought were your own, your friends.”