Israeli army acts as ‘good neighbors,’ rescues Syrians

Under cover of the night, Israel helped transfer 800 Syrians out of harm's way in the deadly Syrian civil war to safety in neighboring Jordan.

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U.N. peacekeepers looking out towards Syria from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, July 22, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)

There is never a dull moment in Israel, but it seems like the last few weeks have given us more than our usual share of events. Miss one news flash and you are behind your friends. Miss two and you are behind the rest of the country. Each event on its own would have been major headline news in any country.  

In Israel, it all happens simultaneously: there was a mounting wave of Hamas violence using incendiary balloons and kites, causing almost a thousand fires in Israel; there was political wrangling over two important laws: "Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People" and  another making surrogate pregnancy available to everyone but male gay couples; there was more sword-rattling by Iran in Syria, close to Israel's northern border-and those were only some of the newsworthy stories Israelis were sometimes literally bombarded with.  

And yet amid all the strife, the conflicts and the heated discussion there was also a story which passed somewhat below the radar. Under cover of the night, Israel helped transfer 800 Syrians out of harm's way in the deadly Syrian civil war to safety in neighboring Jordan. The Syrians are members of an organization called "The Syrian Civil Defense," better known as the "White Helmets." The civilian organization lends help to victims of the Syrian civil war, mostly from among the rebel forces. The Assad regime has repeatedly attacked the White Helmets, claiming that they are colluding with the rebels.  

As the Assad forces advance towards capturing the last remaining rebel strongholds on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, the White Helmets have found themselves in a very risky situation and knowing that they may very well be targeted directly by Assad's army.  

A number of countries tried to intervene to help the White Helmets. Notably the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom appealed to Israel to help the Syrians escape death at the hands of Assad. Recently, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) mounted a covert operation to rescue the White Helmets and their family members. The IDF closed a number of roads on the Golan Heights and quickly transferred the White Helmets to Israel where they were transported by almost 20 buses through Israeli territory and from there to Jordan, which agreed to take them in temporarily before being relocated to Europe. 

Israel immediately declared that this was a unique humanitarian operation designed to save the lives of hundreds of Syrian nationals and will not deviate from its strict non-intervention policy in the Syrian war.  

This is by no means the first (nor, sadly, the last) operation undertaken by the IDF in support of Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire between the warring sides which have been fighting for over seven years. The IDF calls the humanitarian help given to Syrians "Operation Good Neighbor," maybe in the hope that lending a helping hand to the Syrian people will lead to better neighborly relations between our countries once the civil war is over.  

Remember that the Syrians being helped by Israel (including over 3,000 wounded who were taken in for medical treatment) are, at the end of the day, citizens of an enemy country. They were raised in a regime that taught them from birth that Israel is the enemy, and they were educated to hate us. It is no small step for them to start trusting Israel's outstretched hand.  

The IDF Lieutenant Colonel in charge of Operation Good Neighbor, whose name is a military secret, put it best when he said: "Standing on the border and receiving the families, mostly women and children, was an emotional experience. The families that arrived were fearful, but when they reached the border with Israel, their eyes were filled with tears of happiness, knowing that they have gotten their lives back. I am proud to be an officer in an army and a country that carries out an operation characterized by values of humanity and compassion. This is the essence of our work, and this moment is invaluable."  

Israel is a country still very much in conflict with some of its neighbors, but that fact does not deter our military and our people from always lending a helping hand to our neighbors when they need it, in the hope that one day their people will realize that co-existence is not just a slogan-it can be a reality. A reality that helps both the neighbor and us. 

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office. 

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