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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

A Look Back at Operation Good Neighbor: An Incredible Humanitarian Story

Under the cover of night, Israeli military medics assist wounded Syrians as part of Operation Good Neighbor in the Israeli Golan Heights, April 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic, File)

On Sept. 13, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officially ended Operation Good Neighbor, Israel’s unprecedented humanitarian operation in Syria. Over the past five and a half years, Israel transported more than 10,000 wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals and field clinics as part of Operation Good Neighbor. In addition to treating thousands of injured Syrians at Israeli medical facilities, the IDF also delivered thousands of tons of humanitarian supplies. The Syrian regime’s return in August to the Syrian-Israeli border—which had been controlled primarily by anti-regime rebel groups since 2012—effectively prevented Israel from continuing this extraordinary effort.

A Humanitarian Disaster on Israel’s Northern Border

Trapped in a violent conflict since 2011, Syrians have not experienced much reprieve. More than half a million have been killed, with many millions displaced. At least 57 percent of the population requires food, housing and medical assistance. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s army, backed by Iranian and Russian forces, has indiscriminately used conventional weaponry, barrel bombs and even chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.

After seven years of civil war, Assad’s troops have destroyed much of Syria’s healthcare and educational systems, while reducing homes, buildings and infrastructure to rubble. For the last several years, Syria has suffered a humanitarian disaster—transforming the country into a breeding ground for terrorism. By 2013, 70 percent of Syria’s medical professionals had fled the country. Assad’s forces damaged some 73 percent of Syrian hospitals while forcing 45 percent to shutter their doors. The Syrian people drastically needed medical help, with bleak prospects they would receive it.

Helping Syrian Neighbors in Need

On Feb. 7, 2013, wounded Syrians approached the Syrian-Israeli border looking for care. IDF troops brought them into Israel and provided them with medical treatment, informally beginning what would soon become Operation Good Neighbor.

“We, the IDF, with the State of Israel, who cherish human life above all, couldn’t stand witness to the violence in Syria, and decided to reach out to our neighbors in the Golan Heights,” the IDF said in 2017. “We will continue to support our neighbors in the Golan Heights as long as we’re able to do so and as long as they need help.”

Treating the Wounded

Throughout Operation Good Neighbor, Israel treated an estimated 5,000 Syrians—including some 1,300 children—at Israeli hospitals. Israeli doctors provided life- and limb-saving treatment for chemical wounds, as well as blast, high-energy, multi-system and ballistic injuries.

The IDF brought most Syrian patients to the Galilee Medical Center and Ziv Medical Center in Safed, though some were treated at more distant locales like the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, and Poriya Medical Center in Tiberias.

To meet the growing demand for medical care, the IDF carried out humanitarian operations almost every night—crossing the border into Syria, shuttling wounded men, women and children to hospitals and returning those who completed treatment.

The IDF also built field clinics on the border, including the Mazor Ladach (Hebrew for “relief for the suffering”) field clinic. Frontier Alliance International, a U.S.-based organization, operated the clinic and received IDF medical training and assistance. The clinic, which closed last month when Assad regained control of the border region, treated some 7,000 injured Syrian in its one year of operation, averaging at its highest point hundreds of patients a day.

For Israel, a country that values human life, there was no question about providing this care—to civilians and even to terrorists. “It’s our duty as members of the Medical Corps to treat the injured—both the ally and the enemy,” asserted Lt. Col. Dr. Tomer Koller, the IDF Bashan Division’s medical officer. “The treatment of any injured person who needs help—regardless of nationality or which side of the border they come from—stands above all, and this is who we are as a society.”

Clearly, Syrian citizens preferred treatment in Israel over that available in other neighboring countries. Despite growing up with negative stereotypes of and hostility to the Jewish state, Syrians elected to receive Israeli treatment due to Jerusalem’s strong reputation for providing safe and effective treatment. “All I want is for my son to get the right treatment. I used to see Israel as an occupying power, but not anymore. My whole opinion of Israel has changed,” a Syrian mother of a child receiving medical treatment in Israel said. Another mother noted that she “wanted Nour, my eldest daughter, to get the care she needed. I asked for permission to come to Israel four months ago because I knew she would get the best care here.”

Israel’s compassion for its northern neighbors changed Syrians’ perceptions of the Jewish state. As one Syria put it, “They teach us that Israel is the country that hates us the most … We came and saw with our own eyes what they are giving us here. Israel is everything to us as a result of what it is giving us.”

Transferring Aid

The IDF also worked with international organizations and donors to transfer aid to more than 200,000 Syrians living in southwestern Syria, including tens of thousands of refugees in the al-Briga refugee camp on the border.

In total, Israel transferred Syrians 1,700 tons of food, 350 tons of clothes, 12 tons of shoes, 26,000 cases of medical equipment, 49,000 packages of baby food, 14,000 packages of hygienic products, 8,200 boxes of diapers, 290,000 gallons of fuel, 20 electric generators, 650 temporary housing units, 40 vehicles (including two ambulances), 30 shade nets, 2,000 feet of piping for water infrastructure, multiple mobile clinics and classroom caravans and an array of construction equipment. The IDF also transferred hundreds of bags of toys, crayons, games, candy and handwritten notes that Israelis donated to children across the border.

Transporting all of this aid required the IDF to carry out more than 120 humanitarian operations.

Rescuing the Rescuers

In addition to this years-long operation, Israel also engaged in an internationally acclaimed rescue of Syrians who were helping to better the lives of those impacted by the war. The White Helmets—an assortment of Syrian civilians-turned-rescue-volunteers—saved more than 100,000 people in the civil war and faced imminent danger themselves in late July. After Dara’a fell to Assad, hundreds of rescue workers and their families fled to Quneitra on the Israel-Syrian border as regime forces, backed by Iranian militias, prepared to take control of the remaining rebel-held areas in southwest Syria. They were doomed to be trapped in the impending clashes between rebel forces and the regime, which considered the humanitarian workers to be “terrorists” for helping anti-Assad civilians.

But on July 22, in a stunning operation, the IDF’s 210th Bashan Division evacuated 422 rescue workers and their families from southern Syria, transporting them through Israel to Jordan to ultimately be resettled in Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. “These are people who saved lives and were now in mortal danger,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Therefore, I approved their passage through Israel to additional countries, as an important humanitarian gesture.” Israel’s quick evacuation of the White Helmets won kudos from countries around the world, including the United States and United Kingdom.

An Unprecedented, Multifaceted Operation

Operation Good Neighbor was an unprecedented, multifaceted operation that included years of extensive effort in humanitarian and civilian assistance, medical aid, infrastructure support and rescue missions. Not only did IDF soldiers risk their lives to rescue White Helmet workers and their families, transport Syrians to Israeli hospitals and deliver aid to Syrians camped on the border, but Israel also absorbed the cost of these efforts. The Israeli government and its citizens funded much of the medical treatment provided for free to injured Syrians, with the rest underwritten by the assisting Israeli hospitals.

“All of the Arab countries closed the border…and wouldn’t let us in,” Hani, a Syrian man who received medical treatment in Israel, noted. “The Israelis are the only ones who didn’t close the border. I am so grateful to all of the [Israeli] doctors who helped me.”

Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report