The Israeli army’s most important mission is protecting the country, while also preparing its forces for possible war. But of all of the other missions that the Israel Defense Forces are involved with, it appears that the one that was publicized on Wednesday for the first time is the most impressive and encouraging of them all.
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The operations of the IDF agency dubbed Good Neighborliness, which the army runs in the Golan Heights to provide assistance to the residents of the villages on the Syrian side of the border, is truly praiseworthy.
For years, Israel has defended itself against the claim that it was not providing enough assistance to Syrian citizens, victims of a cruel civil war being fought within spitting distance of our border. Here and there, reports have been published on wounded Syrians receiving treatment at Israeli hospitals, but suggestions that even a symbolic number of refugee children could be taken in were dismissed. Now the IDF has disclosed the full scope of its activity on the Syrian border, and what has been presented to the media is impressive – for its good intentions, for the thought that has also gone into the small details of the assistance and for the initial results.
Israeli and foreign aid organizations and several Israeli government ministries have also been partners to the work, but it’s hard to think of another official entity in Israel other than the IDF that would have been capable of launching such a major project with such a measure of effectiveness in a timeframe of less than a year.
The army does not operate in the Golan Heights out of altruistic motives. About 200,000 Syrian civilians live in the 40-kilometer (25-mile) long strip facing the Israeli border (from Quneitra in the north to the ISIS enclave in the area where the Syrian, Israeli and Jordanian borders meet in the south), a strip which is up to 15 kilometers wide. During the war, they have been cut off from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and have ceased receiving any services whatsoever from Damascus.
A mix of armed rebel organizations, local militias and even groups identified with the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, control about 80 villages and towns in this strip. There is no uniform central government in these communities. There is a serious lack of basic infrastructure such as water and electricity, as well as sparse medical care. Basic services that the Syrian government once provided - such as health care and education - have ceased altogether.
It was a confluence of need and opportunity. The IDF identified the possibility of a deal with the residents of the area: Israel would step into the vacuum that was created and provide assistance. In exchange, the local militias would act to maintain quiet along the length of the border and keep more extreme groups away from the border fence. In the long term, it’s possible that the assistance to the residents will improve Israel’s image in the eyes of people who often viewed it as a satanic enemy.
The scope of the aid is surprisingly large. About 3,000 wounded have been treated in Israeli hospitals. About 600 children, each of them accompanied by an adult, have entered Israel for medical exams or surgery. Since January, about five times a week, aid has been delivered across the Syrian border. It includes medications, ambulances, incubators, EKG equipment, baby food, basic foodstuffs, clothing and blankets, generators and diesel fuel. The IDF has also helped repair medical clinics and classrooms that have been damaged in the fighting.
Syrian children who come to Israel are also provided with “fun days” in addition to medical care, and they return home with new clothes. The commander of the regional division in the Golan, Brig. Gen. Yaniv Asor, understood the need when he waited in the freezing cold at 4:30 A.M. for the first group of mothers and children and saw the children dressed in shorts. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had a suggestion of his own – give the children sports clothes and soccer balls.
An organized agency headed by an officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel, on loan from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, replaced the improvised assistance in June. Brig. Gen. Asor, who led to process of establishing the agency, which reports to his division, returned a year earlier from military studies in Britain, where he heard about the importance of the use of soft power.
A conversation with officers from the research brigade of the Intelligence Corps, who showed him what they described as an opportunity that the Americans missed in organizing sufficiently widespread civilian activity after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, convinced Asor of the need to do more on behalf of the Syrian villages.
At the same time, there are foreign reports – most recently in the Wall Street Journal a month ago – stating that Israel is doing other things in the Syrian Golan Heights. According to those reports, which Israeli officials didn’t hasten to deny, weapons and ammunition have been provided to a few of the rebel organizations.
In any event, it appears that the army has proceeded cautiously. Israeli soldiers do not cross into Syria to provide the civilian assistance. The shipments to Syria and taking in the wounded and the children from there is all carried out along the border fence, following a security check designed to ensure that the aid doesn’t become a trap for IDF soldiers.
When Asor is asked about the similarities with the Good Fence that was created in the late 1970s at Metulla, along the Lebanese border, and the security zone that Israel established in southern Lebanon without thinking it through sufficiently, he doesn’t buy the comparison. It’s hard to see the IDF at this time issuing a recommendation to the government to create outposts on the Syrian side of the border, despite warnings about Iranian and Hezbollah forces coming closer to the region.
If the cease-fire agreement, worked out between the United States and Russia, that has been declared in southern Syria turns out to be a success, Israel will need allies in the villages along the border to ensure that the Iranians and the Shi’ite militias that report to them are not infiltrating into locations near the Israeli border.