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Voice from Israel: Humanitarian Aid is About ‘Being a Good Neighbor’

This week, Israel announced that it would be sending humanitarian aid across the border to civilians in Syria, a bitter enemy. “We can’t sit by and watch the humanitarian difficulties on the other side,” said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

“We’ve transferred water, food, including baby food, taking into consideration that these villages are besieged and they don’t have access to any other place. So therefore yes, we are assisting with humanitarian aid along the fence.”

The Syrian government has been fighting opposition forces across the border from the Israel-controlled Golan Heights for months, with the occasional spillover.

We asked Tommy Steiner, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy and IDC Herzliya, to weigh in on whether Israel will get further drawn into the conflict.

Syria Deeply: How significant is the Israeli humanitarian involvement in Syria?

Tommy Steiner: It’s about being a good neighbor: not more, not less. There is a relationship evolving due to the fact that Syrian civilians know that if they have a medical situation, they can come to the border and somebody will pick them up. When Israeli doctors discharge patients back to Syria, they send letters back with the patients that are in Arabic. There’s a relationship developing between medical clinics in Syria and Israeli hospitals.

In the north of Israel, these hospitals have Israeli nurses and physicians. The Syrians feel rather welcome:  they get treatment in their language, so they don’t feel entirely estranged. No one’s trying to make a strategic issue out of this, there’s no hidden agenda here. It’s about being a good neighbor. We can’t get involved in any way, obviously, but Israel does the bare minimum it can. It’s a very modest and small contribution.

SD: Would we ever see refugees coming to the Israeli border?

TS: I hope it won’t get to that point. I know that in the past, people have said that we should open refugee centers in the Golan, but that would really drag Israel into the skirmish. We have jihadis and salafis across the border, we don’t want to get in the middle of that. Israel shouldn’t take sides at this point. The Druze population in the Golan doesn’t know what to do in this situation. It’s awkward because most of them are still loyal to the [Assad] regime, although many of them are now having second thoughts.

SD: Is the Israeli population in favor of any involvement in Syria, or is the same fatigue among the population as there is in Western countries?

TS: I’m not sure that average Israelis are well-informed on the situation. It’s not on the Israeli agenda. If you watch the evening news in Israel, you barely hear reports on Syria. Iran is on the agenda but Syria is not on the agenda of ordinary citizens. We’re getting used to [the Syrian conflict] because the war is similar to what happened in Lebanon 30 years ago, and that waged for 10 to 12 years. I have no reason to assume that the Syrian case will be much different.

SD: Did the recent spillover into the Golan incite panic among Israelis?

TS: Everyone understands that this is nothing more than crossfire. Other than in the Golan, because it’s so close to the border, it’s created very limited damage over the past year or two.

SD: If the situation worsens, would the U.S. government ever consider asking the Israelis to get involved?

TS: Most U.S. allies in the Middle East have reckoned with the fact that the U.S. is relinquishing its role as a security guarantor in the Middle East. I think the only thing that the U.S. would ask Israel to do is keep quiet on the Iranian issue. I don’t see the U.S. administration bothering with [asking Israel to play a role] in Syria.

SD: Do you think we’ll see another incident like the one earlier this year when Israel is believed to have carried out airstrikes on weapons shipments headed to Lebanese Hezbollah?

TS: If there will be other shipments like that detected by intelligence sources, I assume there will be an effort to prevent those shipments from being transferred. The last thing any [Israeli] party would want would be to put new capabilities in the hands of Hezbollah.

SD: Has the recent involvement in Syria led to any change in dialogue between Israel and Iran?

TS: We have no relations with Iran. It can’t get any worse. When Israel looks at Syria it views the conflict through two prisms: one is Iran, and to a lesser extent, al-Qaida and its affiliates and the various salafi groups that share a lack of love for Israel bordering on hatred. When you ask Israeli officials about Syria, the main focus is Iran, and [also] Hezbollah. Nothing can make relations worse than they are already. They’d have to do something really stupid for that to happen. The focus is on the negotiations with Iran and its nuclear program.

You hear reports that northeastern Syria is becoming a training ground between the Kurds and ISIS, and the Kurds have the upper hand, and they’re proxies of Iran and certainly of the regime. I don’t know if I would want ISIS in northeastern Syria, but would I prefer the PKK affiliate that’s somewhat of an Iranian proxy?

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