Some Quiet Humanitarian Diplomacy on Syria

The Journal of International Security Affairs

JERUSALEM— In its meeting this past May, the World Health Organization adopted a resolution condemning the “deterioration of the health conditions of the Syrian population in the occupied Golan as a result of the suppressive practices of the Israeli occupation.” The resolution, a brainchild of the Syrian and Palestinian delegates, joined sundry other attempts to condemn Israel in the international and UN-related institutions. Interestingly enough, this condemnation came just as yet another group of wounded Syrians had crossed the Syrian-Israeli border to be treated in a military hospital that was set up for that precise purpose in the Golan. As of this writing, over 100 injured.

Syrians—some of them as young as four years of age—have crossed the common border between the two countries seeking humanitarian assistance. The medical services available on the Israeli side of the Golan have become sufficiently well known that one of the recent injured, suffering from a bullet wound to the chest, arrived with a detailed doctor’s note in Arabic pinned to his shirt. Lending a hand to the Syrians has not been limited to the military-medical channel. Israeli NGOs have been engaged in humanitarian work from the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, operating, at times under the auspices of a non-Israeli organization, in Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere. Via this vehicle, hundreds of tons of equipment (including medical aid, clothing, baby food, tents and sanitary utensils) have found their way to refugee communities inside and outside Syria. Recently, for example, a number of prominent Jewish NGOs such as the Joint Jewish Distribution Committee and the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief—joined a public campaign to help the children in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, which is currently home to over 150,000 Syrian refugees.

This work, which has not sought publicity for a number of good reasons, offers an interesting prism through which to view some of the events taking place in the region—and provides a glimmer of hope for a different future. At the official level, of course, Israel faces a starker choice. While it has avoided taking a position in the Syrian conflict, the Israeli government finds itself on the horns of several strategic dilemmas. On the one hand, it does not seek to play a role in what many see as a war between two evils the Assad regime and Iran, and al-Qaeda and assorted Islamist forces. On the other, Jerusalem cannot ignore the immediate danger that advanced or non-conventional weapons could leave the Syrian arsenal and end up in the wrong hands. Then there are the regional effects; the conflict, having already spilled into Lebanon and become a quagmire, can easily leak across the Israeli border as well, a scenario that has been discussed by a number of Israeli officials. So, how does investing millions on medical care for Syrians fit into the equation?

In a very interesting way. The first batch of injured Syrians arrived without planning. A local IDF commander spotted several bleeding Syrians and decided to act first and seek approval later. The approval was ultimately granted, and more wounded crossed the border as the battles intensified on the Syrian Golan in the beginning of 2013. The military track was not taking place in a vacuum, however; already in the beginning of 2012, a number of groups in Israel had called publicly for a certain degree of humanitarian intervention.

Speaking at a public rally in Tel Aviv in March 2012, civic leaders said that as Israelis and human beings they cannot sit idly by and watch these atrocities from afar. A collection of clothing and other items for the refugees emerged from that call to arms. A number of Israeli NGOs have joined the cause since, saying that saving lives, a Jewish value, is sacred and lies beyond politics. These calls to action have taken shape in a number of ways, and 900 tons of Israeli aid has been distributed to Syrian refugees thus

far, mostly without publicity. Therein lies the logic of this work. When a Syrian rebel, whether a mother or a father, encounters an “enemy” lending a hand, it is a confusing moment. I have personally seen the looks in the eyes of those Syrians who realized that help is coming from the least expected source. This is not an easy encounter, but it is a unique one that enables a rare dialogue that has not taken place to date. While Israelis and Palestinians have been speaking for over 30 years, Israelis and Syrians have never really “met.” Paradoxically, Syria’s tragedy has at long last afforded the chance to begin that conversation. The conflict that has taken the lives of over 200,000, left over 6 million refugees and shattered Syria is still far from its end. The devastation is beyond what most can even begin to grasp, and the help being offered is far from sufficient. Although the Israeli effort is significant in its own right, it still pales in comparison to the work being done by countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Israeli dimension, however, is not just about the quantity of aid being provided. It is also a message of compassion, and of hope, that perhaps one day, one of the young Syrians whose life was saved might have a chance to see this region differently.


Dr. Nir Boms of the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies conducts research on the Syrian Opposition, and is involved with a number of Israeli-Syrian humanitarian  initiatives.


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