Humanitarian diplomacy in Syria

Omar Abdul Aziz Hospital in Aleppo was the latest one to be greeted by a Syrian bomb in July of this year, courtesy of the Syrian air force and its Russian training and supplies. Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said those killed “included six children and eight women” in two government-controlled neighborhoods. He said dozens of people were also wounded.

Just last April in nearby Zabbadani, the last remaining doctor, Mohammed Khous, was killed by a sniper as he left the hospital following an operation.

Doctors and medical supplies are hardly available to assist those injured in the midst of a ruthless Syrian tragedy that has taken over 500 000 lives and left many more injured, traumatised and defenceless. In a war-torn country where every second person has lost his home, some help however, is coming from an unexpected place.

A few hours after the hospital bombing, eight children were already in operating theatres in nearby Israel. They have joined close to 3 000 Syrian patients who have found themselves in what a few years ago would be an unthinkable and impossible place.

Syrians – some of them as young as four years of age – first crossed the common border between the two countries in February 2013. The medical services available on the Israeli side of the Golan have become sufficiently well known that one of the recently injured, suffering from a bullet wound to the chest, arrived with a detailed doctor’s note in Arabic pinned to his shirt and casually addressed to his Israeli colleague.

Lending a hand to the Syrians has not been limited to the military-medical channel. Israeli NGOs have been engaged in humanitarian work since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, operating at times under the auspices of a non-Israeli organisation, in Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere.

Close to 9 000 tons of equipment (including medical aid, clothing, baby food, tents and sanitary provisions) has found its way to refugee communities inside and outside Syria.

This work, which has been kept under the radar 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, Russia and Iran on the one hand and ISIS and assorted Islamist forces on the other.

Israel, however, cannot ignore the immediate dangers that loom across its northern border. Those include advanced or non-conventional weapons that may end up in the wrong hands; the advance of ISIS and Hezbollah to new positions across the Israeli border and a further escalation in a conflict that has already spilled into Jordan and Lebanon.

So, how does investing millions in medical care for Syrians fit into the equation? It does – 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 at the beginning of 2013.

The military track was not taking place in a vacuum, however; already at 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 could not 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: assistance in operating medical clinics inside and outside Syria; providing food, medicine and essential aid to refugees; training of trauma workers building upon the sad experience of a terror struck country.

Israel also found itself in a good position to help: it had the facilities, the will and the people – Arab and Jews – who found a common cause to work together for their neighbours.

Therein lays 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 realised 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. 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 shape this region differently.

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