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August 14, 2018 7:12 am

Israel’s Unsung Humanitarian Mission Saved Thousands of Syrian Lives

avatar by Yaakov Lappin

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A doctor treats children injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen, August 9, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Naif Rahma.

As the regime of Bashar al-Assad completes its takeover of southern Syria, Israel is winding down a humanitarian and medical operation that saved thousands of Syrian lives throughout the civil war.

A brief look at the official Israeli figures, unveiled recently by the IDF, which led Operation Good Neighbor, gives an indication of what went into it.

Israeli medical centers and hospitals have treated 4,800 Syrian civilians since the conflict began in 2011, half of them children suffering from a range of war injuries and illnesses.

A separate field clinic, established by the IDF and international aid organizations in the southern Golan Heights, has treated 6,000 Syrian civilians since opening its doors last year.

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“I’m proud to be an officer in an army and a country that carries out an operation filled with values of humanity and compassion,” Lt.-Col. E. (full name withheld), who commanded Operation Good Neighbor, said at the end of July, according to an IDF press statement.

Often, the IDF would receive word at night of Syrian civilians who needed urgent help. The civilians would wait at a set meeting point on the border, and IDF medical units from the Northern Command would meet them at the crossing, beginning treatment immediately before evacuating them to hospitals.

On June 30, for example, three Syrian children aged 6, 7, and 10 — all suffering from head injuries — were rushed to Israeli hospitals for life-saving care. So was a 14-year-old with a stomach wound and shrapnel injuries, according to an IDF statement.

Southern Syria has been a conflict zone for several years, and basic medical care services have broken down. The IDF stepped into the void. Since 2016 alone, 1,300 Syrian children suffering from a variety of illnesses have come to Israel with family members for one-day treatments and medicine distribution in specialty clinics.

On a regular basis, the IDF has also transferred tons of food, fuel for heating and electricity, diaper packages, baby food, and boxes of medicine and medical equipment to those suffering across the border. Clothes, hygiene products, and tents also flowed continuously into southern Syria from Israel.

July, for example, saw 72 tons of food, 70 tents, 9,000 liters of fuel, and other goods delivered to Syria from Israel, as the IDF stepped up assistance to displaced people made homeless by Assad’s advance and mass bombings.

On July 22, the IDF rescued 800 White Helmet civil rescue workers from south Syria and their family members, who were in imminent danger due to the impending conquest of the area by Assad regime forces and their Iranian-backed allies. The regime has described these civil rescue personnel, who have risked their lives to save trapped civilians from rubble created by relentless regime air strikes, as “terrorists.”

There can be no doubt that Israel’s efforts left a lasting impression on Syrians in general, which went beyond those who benefited directly from the extensive humanitarian work, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former IDF Military Intelligence research division chief, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

“They are much more aware than they were in the past that Israel is a force for good,” he said.

“In the past, due to education programs, Syrians perceived Israel as a demon that wants to expand, and [that] poses many dangers,” said Kuperwasser. “Today, the Syrian public knows that Israel is a power that tried to help it, at least on the humanitarian level, during years of war. They know Israel provided extraordinary care for the sick and wounded near the border. And beyond that, that a variety of Israeli humanitarian organizations provided aid. That will remain in the Syrian public awareness.”

In addition, he argued, many Syrians will be hoping that Israel succeeds in its efforts to prevent Iran from consolidating itself in their war-torn state, a scenario that they fear.

At the same time, Kuperwasser cautioned, this will not significantly change daily affairs on the Israeli-Syrian border, which will go back to being closed, as the pro-Assad military forces and the IDF face off against one another.

Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book The Virtual Caliphate explores the online jihadist presence. A version of this article was originally published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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