(March 26, 2018 / JNS) Israel has a long history of providing humanitarian aid to civilians in countries all around the world, including Haiti, Africa, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Mexico, even the United States. Syria is also included on that list, despite the fact that the two countries have no diplomatic relations and have been in a state of war since the establishment of the Jewish state. That makes no difference to Israel though.
Whether ally or enemy, the fact civilians are suffering and Israel is in a position to help is reason enough for Israel to get involved.
“The Syrian state is an enemy state,” Maj. Efi Ribner, commanding officer of the Golan Israeli Liaison Office, who is responsible for coordinating all international activity along the Israel-Syrian border, told JNS.org.
“We have this humanitarian crisis, but it’s an enemy state,” he explained. Nevertheless, the government and the Israel Defense Forces “very quickly understood that it’s not an issue of enemy or friend. It doesn’t fit with the set of values that we live upon as a Jewish state and a state of Israel to stand on our side of the fence and say, ‘You know what, we’re not getting involved and we’re going to let people suffer.’
“We’re good people, and there are people suffering on the other side, and they’re bystanders in a very disgusting war that’s taking place for years already, and there’s really no one else coming to help them. And we can and we should be helping these people.”
Israel decided to assist with the humanitarian disaster taking place across its border by launching “Operation Good Neighbor” in June 2016, which provides medical and civilian aid to Syrians while maintaining Israel’s policy of non-involvement in the country’s civil war. Ribner said the main objective of the operation is not only to increase the assistance being given to Syrians by the IDF, funded by Israel, but to also work with international organizations offering humanitarian aid and bring it through an existing infrastructure in Israel.
One organization called Rahma Relief Foundation donated $90 million worth of medicine while another based in Louisiana, called Friend Ships Unlimited, worked in coordination with “Operation Good Neighbor” to build a field clinic immediately east of the Israel-Syria border. The clinic treats between 35 and 70 Syrian patients nearly every day. The effort also assisted international organizations in building a maternity hospital in a Syrian village near the Israel border, with NIS 6 million worth of donations used to buy machinery, beds and other necessities for the facility. A day after it opened, the first baby was delivered.
‘Treating injured people because they’re injured’
The base of the operation is located just a few kilometers from the border. On average, between two to three times a day, humanitarian aid is given to the Syrian population, either through Syrians crossing the border for medical aid or supplies being pushed across the fence to Syria, such as fuel and food. Since the beginning of the operation, the Israeli government has provided about NIS 30 million ($8.6 million) worth of humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians, with non-government organizations donating about NIS 350 million ($100 million).
“I joined the IDF with the dream of being a paramedic—being able to save lives—and this operation does it in its most beautiful meaning,” said Sgt. Ziv Fox, a IDF paramedic involved in “Operation Good Neighbor,” and a commander at the Israeli Military Medicine Academy and training base. “We never ask [the civilians] what they did, what their beliefs are or what they think. Both [populations] were raised during years of animosity and hostility between the two countries, but now they need help, and my team and I can give them this help. You get the experience of treating injured people just because they’re injured.”
Syrians seeking medical attention arrive at a gate in the border fence at night and are checked to make sure they’re not armed before they are given basic treatment, and then taken by ambulance to hospitals in Israel for further care. Their length of stay in Israel could be days or months, depending on the severity of the medical attention they need. They are then transported back to the gate, which constantly changes location along the fence for security reasons, and return to Syria.
The reality of the situation is that sometimes these civilians do not survive the injuries they’ve endured. As Ziv explained, “After I put them in the hospital, I have no way of knowing what’s going on with them until the next time I see them [at the border]. In this profession, you have to understand that sometimes they come back as bodies.”
Ribner and Fox have been touring the U.S. East Coast as a joint initiative of the IDF’s Spokesperson Unit and StandWithUs, a pro-Israel nonprofit education organization. They met recently with Danny Danon, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.
“I was pleased to meet the soldiers and officers of the IDF who are doing this important work, and are the true face of Israel and the IDF,” said Danon. “While the murderous regime in Syria continues to slaughter its own people, for years Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians and has taken care of injured Syrian civilians who arrive at Israel’s doorstep, thanks to soldiers and commanders like yourselves.”
Shahar Azani, executive director of StandWithUs, added that the personal stories of these two Israeli representatives “are an inspiration for students, media and to all with whom they will meet. Their message is received enthusiastically—a message which sheds a true light unto Israel and which is invaluable in the struggle for Israel’s image in the court of public opinion. Sharing Israel’s light is what StandWithUs is all about.”
‘The Israelis are here to help us’
Under the umbrella of the operation is an effort catered specifically to children, allowing them to come in a group once a week for a day of treatment at a hospital in Israel’s northern region. The IDF speaks ahead of time with the few medical staff still existing in Syria about the children’s issues, so they can contact hospitals in Israel and have specialists on hand for when they arrive. A database is maintained of the children treated, and follow-up appointments with doctors are arranged, if need be.
Ribner said that sometimes, the young patients are diagnosed with a need for surgery, though not immediate life-saving surgery, “so we’ll send them back to their homes, and as soon as we have an available appointment for them in Israel, we’ll tell them to bring this child back and we’ll admit them in the hospital, and they will undergo the surgery. And if they need recovery or rehabilitation time, they’ll do that in Israel and then we’ll send them back home.”
Describing the different injuries Syrians are treated for in Israel, Fox said she has seen exposed flesh, burns and wounds from gunshots and bomb explosions, among other things. She said when Syrians first come seeking medical attention, they are “very stiff, very scared and very untrusting,” but by the time they are set to return home, a change of heart is noticeable among some of them.
“When we bring them back to the fence—back to Syria—some of them hug [us] as a goodbye,” she related. “Many of them say, ‘Thank you, we love Israel.’ I’ve had someone who said to me toda in Hebrew. She learned that when she was at the hospital and when she said goodbye, she talked to me in Hebrew and said, ‘Toda, I love Israel.’”
Ribner said children often draw while waiting in the hospitals, even sketching army tanks with Israeli flags on them. He noted that they already understand, “Oh, the Israelis are here to help us.” He also showed JNS.org a “thank you” letter written by a 25-year-old mother who came to Israel with her child seeking medical attention. She signed the letter as “Stranger in my homeland.”
“We hope in the long run” that the assistance and efforts “will change what they think of us,” said Ribner. “For 40 years, every Syrian in the Golan Heights has thought we were the devil or the small devil—the U.S. being the big devil—and the quicker Israel is wiped off the map of the world, the better. By giving them humanitarian aid, we hope . . . they’ll remember in the long run that in their time of need, we were the ones that were here to help them. And to some extent, that we might be able to contribute to how quiet this border stays in the future because [they] remember that we were here for them when they needed it.”