Wednesday, January 17, 2024

How Operation Good Neighbor Directed Israeli Aid to Syrians in Need

 In the wake of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests, Syrian cities witnessed widespread opposition to the leadership of President Bashar Assad. The conflict caused displacement and a crisis that led the Israel Defense Forces to establish Operation Good Neighbor. 

In March 2011, Assad responded to the demonstrations by ordering soldiers to fire live ammunition at the crowds, causing numerous casualties and instigating a civil war. In the decade following, a large-scale displacement and refugee crisis emerged as arial and tank bombardment destroyed entire neighborhoods. Civilians suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of Syrians became displaced.

Situated in a high valley of the Golan Heights, near the Israeli border, Quneitra emerged as a stronghold of local opposition to the Assad regime. Cut off from medical care and food supplies, those living in the area endured life in tents across open fields under harsh natural elements.

In 2013, a Syrian civilian who had sustained injuries approached soldiers at the Syria-Israel border, seeking medical assistance from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). At that time, lacking any policy directive, the commander at the post made an executive decision to provide the injured civilians with humanitarian care. From that moment on, the IDF Northern Command provided similar aid nearly every day. In June 2016, the IDF formally established Operation Good Neighbor.

The first aid operation directed from the new headquarters occurred in August 2016. Within four years, it carried out over 100 operations. The operations spanned three primary missions: the delivery of medical supplies and equipment across the border to civilians in need, the transportation of Syrians requiring critical medical care to facilities in Israel, and the establishment of a field hospital in the border area. In addition, the IDF oversaw the construction of two clinics near Quneitra. Its operations became a collaborative effort between locals and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The field clinic, Camp Ichay, provided treatment for everyday medical issues. Operations also focused on transporting fuel, water, generators, and aid packages that included infant nutrition, warm clothes, shoes, and flour for bakeries.

Aid reached almost 400 families residing in tents along the Israel-Syria border and was distributed among 200,000 residents across southwestern Syria’s Hauran region. With one-third of aid recipients characterized as displaced, 50 percent were under 18. In the first four years of operations, 600 Syrian children, accompanied by mothers, traveled to Israel for critical care.

In 2017, the Chief Medical Officer of the Northern Command, Col. Dr. Noam Fink, described the operations as “one of the most significant efforts to treat those in need that I have ever witnessed.” In return, one of the aid recipients cared for in an Israeli hospital wrote, “To any Syrians that think that Israel is our enemy – you are wrong.”

The grassroots communications and the funds and relief supplies contributed by ordinary Israelis underscored the remarkable effectiveness of Operation Good Neighbor in improving relations between the two countries. The Israeli government had long characterized Syria as an “enemy of the state,” while the Syrian government painted Jewish people as mortal enemies. As IDF reserve Lieutenant Colonel Eyal Dror, a fluent Arabic speaker, described it, “For years, Syrians were educated and brainwashed to hate the State of Israel, even though they did not know us. For us and for Syria, this was something very new, and for Syrians, this wasn’t easy.”

Before Operation Good Neighbor ended in September 2018, due to heightened security concerns, IDF members undertook a risky mission that rescued civil defense group members known as White Helmets. The civil defense group consisted of medical and emergency personnel deemed traitors by the Assad regime. They were in grave danger when Assad reclaimed control over territory in the Hauran region.

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