Since 2016 the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has operated its Good Neighbour Project, which coordinates the transfer of food and medical supplies to 250,000 Syrians, as well as patients from Syria into northern Israel for medical treatment. In this article, Palestinian politics researcher at the Forum for Regional Thinking Elhanan Miller explains the policy behind the project, drawing on his recent interviews with the head of the directorate and the beneficiaries from across the border.
A child’s drawing adorns the office wall of Lt. Col. E (his full name is confidential) in the Israel Defence Force (IDF) Nafakh base, a mile from the Syrian border. The framed drawing depicts a blue and white Israeli flag, its Star of David slightly crooked, with an inscription in black marker: ‘to Abu Yaqub, with love, from Wiam.’
Wiam is a young girl from southern Syria, one of the first patients admitted for treatment at an Israeli hospital last year through the ‘Good Neighbor Directorate,’ headed by Lt. Col. E, nicknamed Abu Yaqub. The small IDF directorate, created in the summer of 2016, coordinates the transfer of food and medical supplies into Syria, as well as patients from Syria into northern Israel for medical treatment.
After years of haphazard activities by Israeli and international aid organisations, the army decided to join the fold. The need first arose in February 2013, when seven injured rebels arrived at the border fence with Israel, begging for help. Israel began admitting Syrians into its hospitals surreptitiously – no questions asked about their identity – publicly acknowledging the aid only a year later.
‘As Jews who experienced the Holocaust, we have a moral obligation to help our neighbours,’ says Abu Yaqub. ‘Beyond that, the aid we provide strengthens Israel’s security on the Syrian border.’
The Good Neighbor Directorate serves 250,000 Syrians living within a strip of the Golan Heights along the Israeli border held by rebel groups, nine miles wide and 50 miles long. The southern segment of the Golan, currently held by ISIS, is not served.
In a warehouse adjacent to the directorate headquarters, dozens of wooden platforms laden with cooking oil, flour, rice and pasta await transport into Syria. Each batch displays a sticker reading ‘better your close neighbour than your distant brother,’ a well-known Arab saying. A hadith, or Islamic tradition, repeats the same neighbourly advice in flowery Arabic.
According to IDF data, in 2017 alone the army transported 145,000 gallons of fuel, 694 tons of food, 6,350 packages of diapers, and 174 tons of clothes. The donations come both from the IDF budget and international aid organisations. Containers arrive at Haifa port from across the world, and are shipped on army trucks to the border, after having cleared customs.
‘We carry out 10-12 operations a week,’ the officer says. ‘Every night, two of our teams are doing work somewhere along the border fence.’
More significant, though, is the medical aid. Last November, the IDF facilitated the opening of a gynaecological hospital in Bariqa, a Syrian village across the border from Alonei Habashan (a Moshav in the Israeli Golan Heights). Another clinic operates in the buffer zone between Israel and Syria under American management, treating 50 Syrian patients a day. Once a week, 25 sick children and their mothers enter Israel for treatment in local hospitals. The project, dubbed ‘doctor’s visit’ has so far treated nearly 1,000 patients, including operations on 35 children.
Abu Yaqub knows a thing or two about the challenges of liaising with civilian Arab populations. He spent his career at Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the IDF branch tasked with coordinating humanitarian affairs with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It is that expertise which he brought with him to work with the Syrians.
‘Think about it – 1,000 children and 1,000 mothers already spent an entire day with us,’ he says. ‘It will be very difficult to convince those children – and their future children – that Israel is the devil, because they were helped by us.’
That sentiment was echoed by Abu-Hassan al-Naimi, a schoolteacher from a village in the southern Syrian Golan. ‘Bashar [Assad] kills and Israel treats the injured,’ he wrote in a text message. ‘The Syrian people, and especially residents of the Golan, are peaceful and will not forget this favour. We hope that Israel expands its humanitarian mission to encompass the maximum number of residents, particularly children, people with chronic diseases, and orphans.’
The average salary on the Syrian Golan is US $40 a month, says Abu Yaqub. Citizens pay nearly half that amount just for water in their villages, delivered by portable tanks. Given that regular shipments of flour and diesel fuel from Israel have already reduced the cost of bread in bakeries by 80 per cent, the gratitude of local populations translates into calm along the border.
‘The proof is in the pudding. For six and a half years, the chaos across the border hasn’t affected Israel,’ he says. ‘On the other side it’s hell, while we can pick cherries right next to Quneitra.’
But Nir Boms, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center who wrote his PhD dissertation on dissidents in pre-war Syria, is more cautious in his optimism. He views Israel’s ‘red lines’ on Syria – whereby Israel will only intervene in the war when attacked, or to thwart arms shipments to Hezbollah – as potentially too conservative.
The hamlet of Beit Jinn on the eastern slopes of Mount Hermon, besieged by the Syrian regime for three years, fell to the hands of the government in late December. Boms is concerned that if Israel does not adopt a more proactive approach to the battles occurring across the border, it may soon find itself confronting Hezbollah on two fronts.
‘What happened there is happening in many other places in Syria,’ he says. ‘The regime replaces the local population with Druze and various militias, embedding Hezbollah along our border. If they continue doing this, we will find Iran on our doorstep. Israel hasn’t acted decisively on this threat.’
Boms became an activist on behalf of Syrians in March 2012, a year after anti-Bashar al-Assad demonstrations erupted in the country.
‘We staged a demonstration in Tel Aviv that month as the death toll in Syria reached 10,000. We said “it’s inconceivable for us, as Jews and Israelis, to stand idly by. We must do something and show we care”. But then someone told me: “Sympathy is very nice, but you can’t take it to the shop and buy food.” That’s when the humanitarian campaign began.’
Boms began coordinating shipments of winter clothing and sanitary products to Syrian refugees living in Jordan, mostly through the Israeli NGO Israeli Flying Aid, as early as 2013 – years before the IDF got involved. ‘When the army decided to open the Golan Heights [to humanitarian shipments], we already had Syrian contacts on the Golan Heights whom we’d met in Jordan,’ he says. According to Boms, $60m of aid entered Syria through Israel during 2017, mostly in costly medical equipment.
Another group that uses the IDF’s services in shipping equipment into Syria is the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a coalition of 90 aid organisations. Shadi Martini, director of humanitarian relief at the Multifaith Alliance, visited Israel in January to explore new opportunities for humanitarian aid to impoverished Syrian communities along the border.
Over the past year, his organisation has expanded the scope of Israeli aid entering Syria as far as the Druze province of Suwayda, nearly 50 miles east of the border. At first, his Syrian clients were wary of the Israeli willingness to help, but today they don’t even remove Hebrew labels from the food products.
‘I ask my recipients about this upfront, and they say they know it comes from Israel and have no issue with it’, Martini said.
According to Martini, agricultural communities along the border are currently suffering from a lack of markets for their produce. He has been discussing the possibility of exporting vegetables to Arab markets via Israel, so far unsuccessfully. ‘There are complicated tariff and regulation issues,’ he notes.
A native of Aleppo who immigrated to the US in 2012, Martini says his first meetings with Israelis were awkward, but soon became more comfortable.
‘The more you see Israeli society, the more you realise how silly [your preconceptions] were. Syrians never used to question their attitudes towards Israel or Jews in general. But after the war, when they saw how Israelis were saving their lives, they realised it was all lies. Israel is really changing hearts and minds.’
But what if the Syrian regime succeeds in overpowering the moderate villagers on the Israeli border? Boms is concerned that such a contingency may end Israel’s humanitarian involvement. ‘We can work with the Russians to pre-empt that threat, but if it happens, the humanitarian operation will end. It will be game over.’