YONATAN, Golan Heights — It is 4:30 a.m. and pitch dark when the sick Syrian children and their mothers begin to cross into Israel.
There’s a 1-year-old girl with a squint, and a 2-year-old with a birth defect that prevents him from walking. The family of a slight 12-year-old is concerned that she is not growing. One child has a rash, another a rattling cough.
They emerge from the darkness into the yellow glare of the security lights on the Israeli side of the fence in the occupied Golan Heights, where they are searched before being allowed through. There are 19 children in total, a smaller group than most that appear roughly every week.
The children are allowed in as part of Israel’s “Good Neighbors” program, which began treating injured Syrian fighters and civilians in the early days of their country’s civil war but has expanded into a more complex operation that also sends fuel, food and supplies into Syria.
Israeli officials stress the humanitarian aspect of the program, but it has another aim: to create a friendly zone just inside Syria to serve as a bulwark against Israel’s archenemy, the Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Israel has watched anxiously as President Bashar al-Assad has taken the upper hand in Syria’s war with the aid of Hezbollah and Iran, its main backer, which are building their presence across the border.
But for the moment at least, Sunni rebel groups control most of the Syrian side of the 45-mile boundary between the two countries. Israel hopes to keep it that way.
Israeli military officers denied giving direct assistance to any of the Sunni groups along the border fence that oppose Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, or even coordinating humanitarian aid with them. But a former senior intelligence officer with the Israel Defense Forces said Israel has provided support to about a dozen groups, and may have given financial assistance “here and there.”
“First of all, it had to do with morals. People were injured on the other side of the border, coming to our fence — they were going to die,” said Brig. Gen. Eli Ben-Meir, who served as the head of the research and analysis division in the IDF’s intelligence corps until last year. “Then it led to a lot of other things.”
It was in 2013, Israeli military officials say, when the first group of injured Syrians approached the Israeli fence on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel partially captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed, a move not recognized internationally.
Israel has now treated more than 3,000 wounded Syrians, military officials say, though a Syrian medic on the other side of the border said the number traveling for care appeared to be higher.
As fighting has died down along the border, Israel has started offering medical care for more-routine ailments. More than 600 Syrian children have been bused to Israeli hospitals for treatment in the past year.
Israel has transferred 360 tons of food, nearly 120,000 gallons of gasoline, 90 pallets of drugs, and 50 tons of clothing as well as generators, water piping and building materials, the IDF says.
“There was an understanding that if we weren’t there, somebody else would influence them,” Ben-Meir said. The humanitarian motivation was “huge,” he added. “But the more it got bigger and expanded, the more it had to do with winning these hearts and minds.”
Closer ties also mean richer intelligence. Officially, Israel has maintained a neutral position in Syria’s war, but it has intervened to protect its interests. Throughout the conflict, assassinations and airstrikes in Syria have been attributed to Israel, though the government rarely publicly acknowledges them.
In the latest strike, on Thursday, Syria accused Israel of bombing a military facility linked to rocket production for Hezbollah.
The program is reminiscent of the early days of Israel’s “Good Fence” program in Lebanon as civil war broke out there in 1975. The defense minister at the time, Shimon Peres, stressed the purely humanitarian nature of the project to establish a “good neighborhood” as Israel treated Lebanese refugees and sent assistance to the country’s south with “no strings attached.”
But then Israel was also trying to prevent encroachment by Palestinian guerrillas, and threw its support behind the South Lebanon Army.
“It’s easy to assume that we are doing it because someone you give a favor to, you get one back,” said Maj. Sergey Kutikov, head of the Good Neighbors medical department, as he walked toward the border to meet the patients. The IDF members leave their military vehicles behind, so as not to attract attention. “But the reason in my mind is really to give humanitarian aid.”
Unlike Syria’s other neighbors, Israel does not take in refugees, though it recently agreed to accept 100 Syrian orphans. Israel has been in a state of war with its northern neighbor for nearly 70 years.
“They always look stressed when they cross,” Kutikov said. “They don’t know what to expect.”
As the sky began to lighten, the families boarded a bus to make the nearly hour-long journey to a hospital on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. The Syrians are given priority over other patients, staff members said. The top specialists were summoned. A clown entertained the children.
“The regime left us nothing,” said a Syrian doctor who crossed with the group. He said two rockets landed in his operating room a year ago. He began coming two months ago, despite being afraid of the consequences of people finding out. “I did it for the sake of the children,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot, we’ve seen death.”
While most of the area along the fence is controlled by Sunni rebel groups, a small section is held by the Assad regime, and another is controlled by Islamic State militants.
Kutikov said there is no contact with rebel groups across the border. Ben-Meir said it isn’t necessary.
“Usually, the guys involved in agriculture, in feeding the population, in taking care of the health situation, are the same guys that are responsible for defending them and fighting against the regime,” Ben-Meir said.
One rebel group, Fursan al-
Golan, receives about $5,000 a month from Israel, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
A cease-fire in the area is largely holding. But both Israel and the communities on the border are concerned that it is probably only a matter of time before Assad tries to take back the territory.
A medic across the border, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said that Israel was creating “tyrants” by supporting certain groups but that most people would rather turn to Israel than to the regime.
After their checkups, the children stay for the day and travel back the following night. Some are kept longer if they need urgent care.
“I was reluctant at the beginning to come to Israel,” said the mother who was hoping Israeli doctors could fix her daughter’s squint. “We can only get treatment in regime-controlled areas, but it’s too dangerous. I have family who are martyrs and prisoners, and my brother and father are wanted.”
One 7-year-old girl was on her third trip to Israel for problems stemming from an airstrike three years ago that killed her twin brother. Her mother said a local commander told them to go to Israel.
“At first I was afraid, but then I saw that the treatment was superb,” the 36-year-old woman said. “We were told they are the enemy, but in reality, they are friends.”
Sufian Taha in the Golan Heights, Heba Habib in Stockholm and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.