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Understanding Israel’s Humanitarian Efforts in Southern Syria

Understanding Israel’s Humanitarian Efforts in Southern Syria

John Cappello
2nd September 2016 - FDD Policy Brief

Israel has so far been able to insulate itself from the devastating effects of the civil war in Syria, which has been raging since 2011. However, there is a growing understanding within the Israeli security establishment that the status quo is not sustainable and that Israel must reexamine its strategy. There is a mounting call among Israeli security experts for the military to take a more active role and become more engaged with actors with whom it shares interests – however tenuous they may seem.

Practical shifts in Israeli policy have been underway for some time. Israel has played an important humanitarian role over the last four years, treating over 2,000 victims of the war at a field hospital established on the Israeli side of the Syrian border and at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed, Israel. The field hospital has since closed, but the medical center, located 19 miles from the border, quietly continues to treat the war wounded.

These humanitarian efforts have been documented, but it was not until July 2015 that then-Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon publically acknowledged Israel was treating Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On its face, the move appeared to be a change in Israel’s standing policy of remaining detached from the conflict, while making sure Israel’s redlines were not crossed. But, the treatment of rebels helps Israel buy quiet in the Golan.

Providing medical treatment engenders good will and cooperation, leading to a more stable environment and resulting in increased security. By developing lines of communication with those they are assisting, there is an opportunity to help shape the environment across the border. It has also reportedly provided Israel with important intelligence.

This is not unprecedented, either. Israel’s 1976 Good Fence Policy, adopted during the Lebanese Civil War, included the provision of medical care to Lebanese citizens across the border in Israel. Israel also established an IDF unit whose responsibility was to build relationships with the residents of southern Lebanon, initially focused on providing humanitarian aid. While this effort did not prevent Israel from sliding deeper into conflict with Lebanon (Israel invaded in 1978), the policy was an example of how Israel worked to shape the security environment along its border.

With the Syrian civil war showing no sign of abating, Israel is in the process of replicating the Good Fence Policy. It recently stood up a new unit to build and maintain relations between the IDF and Syrian civilians. Understandably, the specifics are not widely known, and these cross-border ties remain sensitive.

Meanwhile, the government has decided to take the humanitarian assistance role a step further by allowing individuals to enter Israel to receive routine medical treatment. Given the absence of basic medical facilities in Syria, providing civilian care is another way Israel is able to exercise soft power through humanitarian assistance.

Israel has little choice but to conduct this outreach. For years, Jerusalem and Damascus enjoyed a modus vivendi that resulted in quiet on the Golan. But the Syrian government was forced to withdraw from Israel’s border region in late 2014, leaving this territory under the control of competing opposition and extremist groups. Communicating and cooperating with these forces, even if they do not share common interests, is a strategic imperative.

Above all, Israel is concerned that Hezbollah or Iran might gain a foothold in the Golan. To prevent this, it has targeted high level operatives near the border. But in doing so, it had to deconflict with other groups operating in the area. Similar efforts may prove crucial as Israel works toward preventing Sunni extremist groups from establishing a position there, too.

In this way, Israeli outreach is more than a charitable gesture, it is a matter of national security.

John Cappello, a former B-1B pilot and Air Force Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

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