The strong winds in the Golan Heights blow pain and come from tent cities in which displaced Syrians are clustered together a few meters from the steel-and-barbed-wire fence with Israel. We are close to the villages of Bir Ajam and al Briga, and yet we could literally be anywhere on the Golan border that is carefully patrolled by Israeli soldiers.
The 1974 Israeli-Syrian armistice includes a small empty area. Now, tens of thousands of people are coming—around 60,000 Syrians are said to be piling up along the Israeli border with hundreds of thousands on the move. The battle of Deraa, now won by Assad, and a little further north in Harah and Quneitra, where on Friday the rebels took the initiative, is uprooting the population from the south and forcing them into homelessness. Wounded and hungry, they have the misfortune of having Syria as their homeland. Calls for help come from those who are not only fleeing the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also Hezbollah and the Iranians who are sweeping without pity across their land, as they also seek shelter from last week’s Russian airstrikes. The world again says and does nothing; only Israeli piety remains.
And so, the theme that currently besets the world—that of refugees knocking at Israel’s door—is being played out towards refugees who until just the other day have been enemies. Desperate people are turning up now amid the oak trees of the Golan to request help from their long-standing enemy. Their side has become the main war zone. On Friday, the clash hit Quneitra, and if the Iranian forces were to gain the upper hand, living alongside the Israeli northern border, Israel could not sit by and watch.
For now, the Israeli military’s humanitarian-aid project “Operation Good Neighbor” continues after seven years of the Syrian civil war: It includes tons of food, clothes, toys, field equipment, generators, tents, blankets, and crates of medicine requested via telephone by desperate Syrian doctors. Israeli citizens throughout various Golan Heights communities are all engaged in collecting the most goods they can for Syrian refugees. In the special overnight operations earlier this week—always within the parameters of a cautious military action—Israeli soldiers opened the gates and delivered the items across the border. And from there, medical personnel associated with the Israel Defense Forces provided treatment to the wounded and the sick. Those who were seriously injured were loaded onto trucks and helicopters. Those with devastating injuries (and for whom you might say were beyond help) were quickly transported to Nahariya’s Galilee Medical Center, where they were treated by an incredible team of surgeons, including Dr. Eyal Sela, who not only took the time to speak with us but showed us amazing, horrific images. Here, we learn that a man can save another, even when the prospect of doing so seems impossible. We saw faces where only foreheads and eyes were left, skulls reconstructed from nothingness with a reinvented nose, mouth and chin; limbs smashed and grafted prostheses. Transplants, extensions, computer inventions. Some 5,000 people have been taken care in the little hospital.
Sela, an ENT (ears, nose and throat) physician and neck surgeon, determined, with an overtly sunny disposition: “I have a dream that the Syrians who collapsed under bombs and who later woke up here and thought ‘Help, Israelis!’ now tell their families and all Arabs that their fears are unfounded, the hatred is absurd … that when they spent time with us, they met doctors and nurses, both Jews and Arabs, who treated them with love.” At present, there are a total of 40 Syrians being treated at the hospital.
We spoke to one man we’ll call Nawras because providing his real name might lead to him being suspected of being an Israeli spy, putting his life in danger. Nawras, a 22-year-old from Quneitra, was picked up after losing his hands and an eye on June 3. He has a sad but calm expression; he already has two grafted prostheses in place of his hands. “My companions who rescued me told me the following: The only ones who can help you are the Israelis; let’s go to the border. Of course, I was afraid. The Assad dynasty teaches us since elementary school to hate Jews … when you are a child and don’t want to eat, mothers say: If you don’t eat, a Zionist will come and suck all your blood.” Nawras looks at the stumps of his hands. “Instead, human beings, life are sacred here, while for us death is normal.”
Hani, from Ghouta, near Damascus, is 28 and has two children. He has been in the hospital for two years, after having had his head and an eye practically rebuilt. “Someone threw me on a horse’s back, and after three hours of travel I arrived at the border. They asked me: Do you want Israel to treat you? Yes, I said, though I was still scared. They nursed me back to health. I don’t want to stay out of my country and my family. I want to go home and hope that Syria makes peace with Israel. We are afraid of Hezbollah and the Iranians because they are carrying out a religious war against us; they kill us for their purposes. They take women and children in order to force the rebels to surrender.”
From al-Briqa, a few meters from us, two survivors speak to us on the phone: Musa Abu al Bara’a, who by now is on the border, having been on the run for the past five years; and 29-year-old Mohammed Hariri.
“Everyone has a wife and children,” they say. “Israel is our hope: Go to the United Nations, and ask them not only to come and get us out of here, but also that a real ceasefire with a free zone will be realized. Israel doesn’t scare us; it’s the only country that respects and helps us, which we can count on.”
The founder of the “Good Neighbor” project, Lt. Col. (res.) Marco Moreno, explains that “refugees are not expected to seek shelter from us. We have always managed aid as a military operation with caution and attention, knowing that our soldiers are saving and helping them while risking our lives. We enter at night in a country at war against us. We can expect anything, and we know that. But we want to save them as human beings. We passionately help children; when they come with their families here and there along the fence, the population collects toys, clothes, funds, special food, diapers … at the beginning, there was a lot of suspicion, but then they understood.
“Yes, we certainly have an explicit interest. When the operation started, we told them: ‘We will help you beyond the border and take care of you, but don’t allow your terrorists to come and hurt us.’ What simply started out as the right thing to do has transformed into something beautiful.”
Lt.-Col. Tomer Koller, a medical officer in the Bashan division of the Golan, points to the colored tents in the wind from the Hazaka outlook post. Inside, they are packed with people in need.
For Israel, it is impossible to think of hosting them. The country is small, and these refugees are particularly problematic; they vary from newborn babies to ISIS terrorists who hate Jews. “Our policy is to help them,” said Koller. “We feed them, we take care of them as much as possible … and then they have their reality at home.”
Their home is in flames. We know it; we see the frightful wounds on the bodies of Syrians cured by Israelis in the Galilee. Israel cares for Syrians with its incredible therapeutic power and good will, but it can’t bring them home. In that respect, the best of human intentions and common sense sometimes clash. The right choice, however, is that man remains a friend of his fellow man, at his best, even in war. That’s what Israel believes.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal.