Syria gets unexpected aid from Israel across enemy lines

Israeli soldiers with food supplies for Syrian refugees at an army base in the Golan Heights on Wednesday. The aid project represents what Israeli officials say is a longer- term investment in stabilising the border area.
Israeli soldiers with food supplies for Syrian refugees at an army base in the Golan Heights on Wednesday. The aid project represents what Israeli officials say is a longer- term investment in stabilising the border area.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Military-led project began in June 2016 and covers supplies like flour, fuel and medicine

GOLAN HEIGHTS • Over the past year, hundreds of sick Syrian children have been whisked across enemy lines at dawn for treatment at clinics in Israel and slipped back home after dark.

Truckloads of supplies have entered Syrian villages through a gate in the sturdy security fence that Israel has constructed since Syria erupted into civil war, including stacks of flour, generators, half a million litres of fuel, construction materials, tonnes of shoes, baby formula, antibiotics and even a few vehicles and mules.

This week, the Israeli military revealed the scope of the humanitarian aid project, Operation Good Neighbour, which began in June last year along the Israeli-Syrian boundary on the Golan Heights.

The aid project depends on an extraordinary level of cooperation between old foes on both sides of the decades-old armistice lines separating the Syrians and Israelis.

Military officials say they coordinate directly with Syrian doctors and village leaders to gauge needs.

The move is likely to burnish the reputation of the Israeli military, usually viewed as an occupying force and formidable war machine.

It also yields immediate security benefits by giving Syrian border villages - dominated by rebel forces fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad - an interest in keeping out more radical anti-Israeli militias, and represents what officials say is a longer-term investment in stabilising the area.

"The aid creates a positive awareness of Israel on the Syrian side," said Colonel Barak Hiram, the commanding officer of Israel's 474 Golan Brigade, adding that it could lay the "first seeds" of some form of future agreement.

Most of the supplies are donated by Israeli and foreign non-governmental organisations, while the Israeli government has footed the bill for medical treatment.

According to the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a New York-based network of organisations involved in the aid effort, Israel has also become an efficient, if unlikely, staging area for Syrian aid groups operating abroad that, facilitated by the Israeli military, are now shipping goods into Syria through Israeli ports.

The extent of the project became known days after the United States and Russia announced a ceasefire agreement for southern Syria, territory that includes the areas covered by Operation Good Neighbour, and after President Donald Trump's cancellation of the clandestine and failing American programme to provide arms and supplies to Syrian rebel groups.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to Israeli reporters during a trip to Europe this week, said he was utterly opposed to the ceasefire deal because of concerns that it would allow Shi'ite militias backed by Israel's arch-enemy, Iran, to dig in close to its borders.

"Netanyahu is upset because the Jordanians were told that the Shi'ite militias would be kept 40km from their border," said Mr Ehud Yaari, an Israeli analyst and fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Israel did not get the same promise. We were left out."

But discussions on the ceasefire are continuing, Mr Yaari said, and the Israeli protests seemed aimed at trying to shape the outcome.

Israel says it maintains a policy of non-intervention in Syria's civil war, which began in 2011. But it has frequently bombed convoys and stores of weapons destined for Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia fighting in Syria on behalf of Mr Assad.

On other occasions, it has retaliated against Syrian government positions for the spillover of errant fire into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Since Israel and Syria are technically in a state of war and have no diplomatic relations, Israel has not taken in masses of Syrian refugees as other countries have done. Even a government proposal to bring in 100 orphaned Syrian children was dropped.

Still, many Israelis have expressed distress over standing by as the humanitarian disaster has unfolded in Syria, which is what motivated the military to undertake the operation, officials said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2017, with the headline 'Syria gets unexpected aid from Israel across enemy lines'. Print Edition | Subscribe