This article appears in Lay of the Land:
Imagine for a moment, what it would feel like for a small child to taste ice cream for the first time, to feel the soft, comforting hug of a giant teddy bear. Imagine as a parent, being able to sit and enjoy a quiet cup of coffee while your child plays safely. These are small, everyday gestures that we take for granted but for those many thousands affected by civil war in Syria, they are miracles.
Civil war broke out in Syria in 2001, affecting millions of civilians. This is a war that still continues. My Lay of the Land colleague, Yair Chelouche, and I recently had the pleasure of travelling to the Golan Heights (responsibly masked of course!) to meet with Lt Col (Res) Eyal Dror, commander of the “Good Neighbor” directorate, under the IDF’s Northern Command.
We meet Lt Col (Res) Dror at a lookout point that gives us a clear view of Syria, the surrounding hills and the old city of Quneitra. The landscape is dotted with apple orchards and cherry trees and seems peaceful. Deceptively peaceful.
To understand the tremendous security threat that Israel faces on the border, we have to look at the topography of the landscape. From our vantage point, just 500m from the border with Syria, we gain a better understanding just how close terror groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are to Israel. The ever present threat posed by Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah is not too far away and the IDF need to be ever vigilant.
We also cannot forget that there is still an ongoing civil war in Syria.
The impact of civil war on a civilian population is tragic beyond belief. Civilians are not only caught in the crossfire but are often used as pawns between warring factions, women raped and children severely traumatized. Information about what was happening to Syria’s civilians reached the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and Lt Col (Res)
Dror, who had previously served in coordination and liaison units with the Palestinians, was approached to form a unit that would carry out an extremely important mission – helping to save the lives of Syrian civilians by enabling them to receive medical and humanitarian care in Israel.
The result was “Operation Good Neighbor”, which started in 2016 and was forced to come to an end in 2018, following the return of the Assad government’s control of southern Syria along the border with Israel.
Over 700 missions were carried out and nearly 5000 civilians brought into Israel. A field clinic was also set up with the aid of a Christian organisation near the border and this allowed for the treatment of 8000 Syrians. The IDF also opened up a maternity ward next to the field clinc and one of the greatest achievement of “Operation Good Neighbor”, was welcoming 1000 babies into the world!
“First of all, I always remember that my mission is to create security – to create good neighbourly relations on both sides of the border. We do this, perhaps, in the noblest way possible,” says Lt Col (Res) Dror commander of the “Good Neighbor” Administration. “It is a great privilege for me to command a unit whose mission it is, in this place and at this time. We have been given the opportunity to influence reality, and with a lot of will and good people – I believe we will continue to do the best we can.”
Looking out at the ruins of the old city of Quneitra and surrounding landscape, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the brave soldiers of the IDF, who endured immensely difficult and dangerous conditions, to rescue these equally courageous civilians. I imagined heavy fire exchanges between Assad’s forces and rebels, frightened civilians and extremely alert IDF soldiers, with an ever present awareness that they were helping to rescue civilians from an enemy country and that very territory was fraught with terror entities. The IDF soldiers knew that they were carrying out a sacred mission, in line with the ethos and moral code of the army – the sanctity of protecting civilian life.
“Aid operations take place almost every night, at high intensity and in all weather,” says the commander of the 77th Battalion, Lt Col (Res) Shaul Israeli, whose battalion performs operational employment on the Syrian border. “Sometimes it is about transferring food to children, sometimes with medicines and sometimes also real medical equipment. The most exciting action of all is the transfer of children to medical care in the country – patients, the disabled and those who do not have access to appropriate medical care in Syria, find in us light and hope for a better life for them.”
From our vantage point, we can see the enormous United Nations compound, where peacekeeping forces are stationed. I asked Lt Col (Res) Dror if the UN or any other counterparts like the EU (European Union) had any part to play in “Operation Good Neighbor”. He explicitly replied that they did not. It would appear that neither major international body (who are often prone to great criticism of Israel) was interested in helping in any way. The IDF was also responsible for the rescue of 400 Syrian civilians who were members of the ‘White Helmets’, a civil defense volunteer organization and their families.
But this mission was all about the civilians. The individual stories grip your heart. Listening to Lt Col (Res) Dror, the tears welled in my eyes.
What is important to understand, is that this wasn’t simply a case of bringing people in, patching up their wounds and then sending them home. It was not a “band aid” approach.
Many civilians required long term care and were dispatched to various hospitals.
“Imagine what it was like to come to a country that you are taught is the devil and receive care from an Arab doctor or a Druze nurse, speaking to you in Arabic. Those making it possible were Israeli soldiers in uniform. They see that Israel is made up lots of different people”, says Dror. I asked him if the IDF was ever acknowledged and his reply was that they didn’t need it but having received the smiles, the pictures drawn for them by children and just the knowledge that generations of Syrians will grow up with a positive understanding of Israel was thanks enough.
Lt Col (Res) Dror, recalls how he asked one little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. His question was met with silence. To this sweet little boy, who had seen his closest friend killed, the idea of reaching adulthood, let alone contemplating a career was something he could not fathom. After a while he remarked that he could now have hope that at least maybe he could grow up to reach adulthood.
The gift of hope is priceless!
The soldiers who served on this mission have a lifetime of memories from the individual stories of the people they helped.
Lt Col (Res) Dror is visibly moved when he shares two stories. A little girl was brought into Israel, her leg completely crushed. In such cases, she would have had her leg amputated and sent back to where she came from. Doctors who treated her however, decided that she would stay in Israel for several months for rehabilitation after being fitted with an expensive Ilizarov external fixator, the cost covered by Israel. The IDF and her team of doctors and caregivers made sure that she would have everything she needed to improve her quality of life.
Lt Col (Res) Dror shares a lovely picture of an Israeli flag. This story is very special to him. Another little girl was safely brought in for medical care. Suffering severely from diabetes, doctors remarked that if she had not been brought to them for care and treatment, she would have been dead within hours. Her palate had virtually disintegrated as a result of her illness. Doctors and surgeons treated her, reconstructed her mouth and sent her home with a year’s supply of insulin and medicine. Medicine for diabetes is hard to find in Syria and is prohibitively expensive.
The stories are endless and so moving. Children were able to play for the first time without fear, taste the simple pleasure of ice cream while their parents can enjoy moments of respite from war. It is hard to imagine the courage that it took for these
civilians to risk their lives to receive care from an army and country that they once perceived as the ultimate enemy. It is even harder to imagine their life under constant threat of war. For the soldiers of the IDF who participated in “Operation Good Neighbor”, the ultimate ‘Thank You’ was evident in the hope that they helped instill, the improvement in the health and quality of life for thousands, and the massive barrier of distrust and hate that came crumbling down under the force of humanity and care.
The IDF proved that in a time of strife, you can still love thy neighbour.
Warning: This video clip might contain imagery not suitable for sensitive viewers
Operation Good Neighbor is a mission of compassion for those in need and of hope for a better, more secure border between Israel and Syria. Over the past six years, we’ve seen war destroy the lives of Syrian civilians. We couldn’t stand by and watch. While carrying out Operation Good Neighbor, we’ve had the honour of meeting our neighbours and hearing their stories. #OperationGoodNeighbor #IDFOperations