For the first time, the Israeli army has revealed the magnitude of its humanitarian aid to Syria, which has been code-named “Good Neighborliness.” Over 360 tons of food, 450,000 liters of gasoline and 50 tons of clothing have been transferred over the Israel-Syria border.
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The head of the Israel Defense Force unit responsible for providing the assistance, identified as Lt. Col. A., oversees a number of officers who are in charge of sending medical aid and equipment to the war-ravaged country as well as managing contacts with local Syrians.
Until the unit was established in August 2016, Israeli aid to the Syrians was transferred in a less organized manner. But as the fighting continued and the army became more concerned about the changing reality on Israel's northeastern border, as well as the potential of militias seizing control of the area, it decided to significantly expand humanitarian activities in Syria.
In the three years before the unit was established, Israel transferred around 15 tons of baby formula over the border. In less than a year since the unit has been set up, that number increased to 113 tons. While the army supplied about a ton of clothing and shoes in the first years of the war, it provided a total of 100 tons of these items in the last year.
Most of Israeli aid is in the form of medicine, food and infrastructure equipment.
The IDF has been transferring large quantities of pharmaceuticals, including painkillers and anesthetics, across the border. The army has also been providing insulin for the treatment of about one hundred sufferers of diabetes. In addition, two fully equipped ambulances and even a temporary structure to serve as a clinic were also sent to Syria.
An Israeli army medical clinic is due to start operating on the Israel-Syria border in about two weeks. The clinic will be run by a team of American doctors and will provide medical services to residents of the region.
The IDF will be responsible for protecting the clinic itself as well as for the basic conditions that will enable it to operate at a location that was formerly used by army troops.
According to IDF figures, over 3,000 wounded civilians have received medical care in Israel and a thousand children have been brought to the country for medical exams. Each week, buses with Syrian children and their mothers reach the border at dawn to enter the country for medical visits.
These children and their mothers pass through a metal detector and are taken to one of the hospitals in northern Israel. The army’s education corps organizes activities for soldiers to come and play with the Syrian children, and they are also visited by a medical clown.
Brig. Gen. Yaniv Asor of the IDF said the army is not providing funding beyond the border, but that statement runs counter to a Wall Street Journal report citing a local rebel leader who said Israel is covertly providing cash to Syrian rebels. “The purpose is also to [give them] a ‘fun day’ in Israel and a break from events [in Syria]. They also won’t return to Syria without clothes and shoes,” said Asor. Last month alone, there were 27 “aid missions,” as the army calls them. “That’s more than one a day, because I don’t do this on Friday and Saturday,” he added.
Asor does not believe the increasing aid missions impede his role as a division commander responsible for guarding the Golan Heights border. “It is a significant component of my approach to defense. It has operational impact,” he said.
The civilian aid creates better neighborly relations, which will help prevent terrorist activity, Asor explained. It should also help restrain and repel hostile elements along Israel’s border.
The army uses local contacts and operates in dozens of villages in the vicinity of the border, mainly in the Quneitra district.
One night, for example, the Good Neighborliness program received a phone call about a local clinic that had been bombed. The following night the Israeli army shipped two tents, beds, blankets and medical equipment worth around 50,000 shekels ($13,900) over the border. Asor has met with the mukhtars, or local village chiefs, near the border, and the commander of the unit is in direct touch with the local contacts by phone.
Last January, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot revealed that the army had allocated 26 million shekels for medical aid to Syria. Last month he said the army has been transferring hundreds of tons of equipment to the country.
Asor added that most of the aid is received through donations from local and international organizations. Some Syrian groups have refused to accept equipment donated by the IDF, fearing that it would hurt their future activities in the region. However, the army has obtained donations from a number of organizations and has managed to acquire and deliver seven generators, eight vehicles and 600 meters of water pipes to fix damaged Syrian infrastructure. In addition, the IDF transferred over six mules.
The Israeli army had not previously revealed the extent of its humanitarian assistance to Syria. In response to a question from Haaretz under the Freedom of Information Act about its scope, the IDF claimed that the information was confidential for national security reasons.
The army now says it has changed its policy.
“We see an increased desire to accept the aid on the Syrian side. Remember that the Syrians, our neighbors across the border, have been educated to hate Israel for 40 years, and in recent years, especially in the past year, they are seeing things differently; that the only country helping them in the terrible chaos around them is the State of Israel,” Lt. Col. A. told reporters.