A closer look at Israel's Operation Good Neighbor on the Syrian border

Israel reaches out to aid Syrian refugees.

By LINDA GRADSTEIN
August 10, 2018 15:13

IDF transfer Syrians humanitarian aid with Operation Good Neighbor, July 19, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

IDF transfer Syrians humanitarian aid with Operation Good Neighbor, July 19, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

 
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HANI, 28, wears a backward baseball cap over a bandage that covers his head and one of his eyes. A Syrian refugee from Ghouta near Damascus, he’s been in the Western Galilee Medical Center for almost a year and a half, and he’s even learned some Hebrew. He remembers the day he was shot as if it was yesterday.

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“I was at home when I heard heavy shooting,” he told a group of reporters who visited him recently in the hospital. “I wanted to see what was going on, so I went outside. A loudspeaker blared that all of the civilians should leave.”

Hani says he helped his wife, mother and children get into a car to flee. Then he saw a Syrian soldier aiming his rifle directly at him. He was shot in the face, and seriously wounded. He said it took two hours for first aid responders to get to him.

“The doctor said he couldn’t do much for me,” Hani recalls. “He said to leave me there even if it means I will die.” Hani said someone asked him if he wanted to go to Israel for medical treatment and he immediately said yes.

“We were told by people who had been injured previously that they were treated well in Israel, so we weren’t afraid,” he said. In fact, he said, when given the choice between treatment in Jordan, Turkey and Israel, more wounded Syrians are choosing Israel, despite having grown up with negative stereotypes of the “Zionist enemy.”

Hani was taken to the Israeli border on horseback – a trip of more than three hours – that he described as “really hard,” where Israeli soldiers met him at the border and took him to the hospital.

“When I first woke up and saw myself, I was shocked to see my face,” he said. “The doctor calmed me down and said he would fix the damage. I have had several plastic surgeries and now I am happy again. I am very thankful to the doctors.”

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Israel has treated about 5000 patients, both adults and children, from Syria. The army coordinates their transport, usually at night, to Israeli hospitals mostly in northern Israel. Hospital officials allowed a group of journalists access to some of these patients but insisted their last names not be used, and that photos be taken only from the back.

Treating Syrians has become almost routine for Dr. Eyal Sela, head of Ear, Nose, Throat, Head and Neck Surgery at the Western Galilee Medical Center. Sela, who is nicknamed “Clooney” for his good looks, said that the medical infrastructure in Syria has collapsed, and that Israel is seeing more and more patients with severe injuries.

He shows a slide of one patient who arrived at the hospital with half of his face completely gone.

“We are seeing injuries from high-velocity sniper bullets,” he said. “There are multiple injuries to the chest, head, neck and eyes. The surgery is very complex.”

The patients’ medical condition is made worse by rampant bacteria that Sela said most Israeli doctors have not seen before.

“We are only 60 miles away and [yet] they are resistant to our antibiotics,” he said. “To go to the doctor in Syria is very expensive, while it is easy to go to the pharmacist and get antibiotics. They give them out like candy, so the bacteria become very resistant.”

The Western Galilee Medical Center is near Israel’s border with Lebanon. About 50 miles to the east is Israel’s border with Syria. It is here that Israel has stepped up its efforts recently as tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have flooded southern Syria fleeing the government regime. About 15,000 are currently near Israel’s border with Syria.

About 200 refugees approached the border in mid-July, waving white flags and apparently requesting asylum in Israel. Israeli officials turned them away saying they would not be allowed to enter.

“Our policy is that they should stay on their side of the border and that we will not let them enter,” Lt. Colonel Dr. Tomer Koller, the medical officer of the Bashan Division on the Golan Heights, told a group of journalists at the Hazaka observation point. “We are sending messages that we want the ceasefire [with Syria] to be kept. Israel is prepared for any situation, but if the Syrian regime occupies this area, I don’t know what will happen to the humanitarian aid.”

Koller was referring to a large amount of aid that Israel has given to rebel groups in southern Syria. Beginning in late June, Syrian President Bashar Assad ramped up his attack on the last pockets of rebel control near the Golan Heights, part of which Israel conquered in 1967 and later annexed.

Israel has transferred more than 100 tons of food, dozens of tons of clothes and several tons of medical supplies, along with hundreds of army tents to civilians in southern Syria who fled their homes. Israelis living on the Golan Heights also made care packages for their Syrian neighbors, with toys, candy and clothes.

Just across the Israeli border is the Al-Briqa refugee camp housing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Even without binoculars it’s not hard to see the Israeli army-issued tents across the border.

Mohammed al-Hariri, 29, arrived at the refugee camp in early July fleeing Assad’s forces. He came with his pregnant wife and his toddler son, and spoke to reporters by Skype.

“I’ll be the first to enter Israel if they open the border,” he said.

That kind of statement would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Israel and Syria are sworn enemies. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, during which experts say Israel came close to losing to Egypt and Syria, remains traumatic for many Israelis. Yet years of Israeli humanitarian efforts have eroded the traditional image of Israel as an enemy in the minds of Syrians 
– at least those in areas closest to the border with Israel.

All of the 5,000 patients who have been treated in Israel have families whose opinion of the “Zionist enemy” has also changed.

Back in the hospital, Hani practices his Hebrew with visiting journalists. He communicates with his family, including his two young children, by sending letters through the International Red Cross.

“All of the Arab countries closed the border with Israel and wouldn’t let us in,” he said. “The Israelis are the only ones who didn’t close the border. I am so grateful to all of the doctors who helped me.” 

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