July 19, 2017 at 2:30 PM
GOLAN HEIGHTS — Israel made public for the first time Wednesday the extent of its humanitarian aid to the civilian population living just across its northern border in Syria.
It is well documented that Israel has provided emergency medical treatment to Syrian fighters seeking help. As many as 3,000 wounded individuals have made their way to the border and received lifesaving medical treatment in Israeli hospitals before returning to their homeland.
There have also been media reports that Israel has provided financial and other support to some of the rebel groups fighting against the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a conflict that started in 2011.
On Wednesday, the Israeli army opened its store rooms and briefed journalists on the full extent of a humanitarian operation it calls "Good Neighbors." As part of the effort, Israel has transferred 360 tons of food, 450,000 liters of gasoline and 50 tons of clothing to Syria. It has also sent large quantities of painkillers, anesthetics and basic medicine for diabetes and asthma.
While its official policy has been to steer clear of the fighting raging a few miles from its border, Israel has been drawn into the conflict on numerous occasions, returning fire toward Syrian army positions, even killing fighters, when errant fire reaches into its territory.
On Wednesday, during a meeting with Eastern European leaders in Budapest, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was heard saying, too, that Israel had carried out dozens of attacks against arms convoys in Syria making their way to the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah.
"We blocked the border not only in Egypt but in the Golan Heights," Netanyahu told leaders from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. "We built the wall because there was a problem with ISIS and Iran trying to build a terror front there. I told Putin, when we see them transferring weapons to Hezbollah, we will hurt them. We did it dozens of times." (ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.)
The meeting was being held behind closed doors, but Netanyahu's remarks were accidentally transmitted to reporters covering the event, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
During the trip to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday, military personnel shared with journalists that over the past year Israel has provided aid to some 200,000 civilians living on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
As many as 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced in the fighting. Many of those have made their way to nearby countries and even Europe, but only the poorest Syrians have turned to Israel for assistance, Col. Barak Hiram, brigade commander of the Golan Heights, told reporters.
Israel and Syria have never had diplomatic relations and have been officially at war since Israel's establishment in 1948. Until now, there was almost no human interaction between Israelis, who took control of part of the Golan Heights after the 1967 war, and those Syrians who live close to Israel's border.
"They have been taught all their lives that Israel is Satan and were afraid to come to the border for help," Hiram said.
Much of the Syrian population in that area lives in rural villages, and about 50 percent are under 18. There are also internally displaced people who have arrived in the area, with some 400 families living in tents close to the border, he said.
The fighting had left many residential areas with no running water or electricity, and educational and health-care facilities are almost nonexistent. Those that are still standing have only rudimentary equipment, Hiram said.
Since last summer, Israel has transferred infrastructure equipment such as generators and piping to repair the water system, as well as hundreds of tons of basic food supplies and medicine.
The Israeli army has also facilitated basic medical treatment for Syrian children and their parents in triage clinics set up along the border, allowing more-serious cases to be treated in Israeli hospitals.
Until now, most of the operation has taken place at night, but in roughly two weeks a medical clinic to be run by a team of American doctors and protected by the Israeli army will open in the area and operate during the day, Hiram said.
Noam Fink, who is the chief medical officer of Israel's Northern Command and oversees the medical program in the Golan Heights, said children with basic illnesses or conditions could now receive simple treatment.
"It makes me proud that we are doing this, and I hope that the international language of medicine will start relations with our neighbors," he said.