The senior Israel Defense Forces officer who arranged for thousands of Syrians to get treatment in Israeli hospitals as civil war raged has said the people they helped “will not forget” it.
Lt Col Eyal Dror, who recently retired, served in the IDF for 24 years and wrapped up Operation Good Neighbour last year, telling Jewish News that his unit’s mission to change Syrian minds about Israel had been successful.
Dror took command of a Golan Heights team in June 2016, after Israeli leaders decided that help for Syrians living near the border should be stepped up. His team later led the evacuation of the White Helmets, the renowned Syrian humanitarians forced to flee by the advancing forces of President Assad’s regime.
Now living on a kibbutz in the north, Dror said that Israeli soldiers began helping on an ad hoc basis in 2013, when one night – out of the blue – seven wounded Syrians approached the border.
“We were watching from our side and wanted to help them,” he said. “But we had to be careful. They have been taught to hate us for decades. I met hundreds of Syrians and they all said they are educated against us, probably they don’t even know why.
“They were there in Syria – no electricity, no healthcare, no water, wounded, desperate, so they approached the fence with a lot of fears. They came slowly. We opened the fence and took them to an Israeli hospital. It saved their lives. Since then 4,500 Syrian men, women and children reached Israel and got life-saving treatment.”
This went on for three years under a media blackout until Dror was asked to increase the Israeli efforts as part of COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories). The significance of what Israel did in those years still isn’t fully understood.
“Think about it – the IDF decided to establish a unit that works 24/7 to help the enemy. Today I know it was a huge privilege, but at the time I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
In order to be successful, he said, the army “had to build trust between us, let them understand us a bit better, let them see we’re not here for PR, because all our operations were under cover from the media – they couldn’t publish it”.
The first operation was to take 50 Syrians (25 children and their mothers) to Israeli hospitals every week, but the numbers soon grew. “This was not life-saving surgery for children, but treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes,” he says.
Surgeons operated 70 times in those first few weeks, as pre-arranged groups came to the fence at 4am and IDF soldiers took them by bus to meet the doctors. They were in Israel for about 10 hours, said Dror, and most were in a sorry state.
“As a human being, as a father of three, to see these Syrian children, it was one of the worst sights I ever saw in my life. They had no shoes. They smelled like a bonfire because they had no electricity or fuel so they were just burning everything to heat themselves. They had no water so couldn’t shower, their clothes were dirty… It was a very hard sight to see.
“I once asked a 12-year-old boy what he wanted to be when he was an adult. He just stared at me. I asked him again. My Arabic is good so he understood. The third time he told me: ‘Sir, probably I won’t be an adult.’ I asked why. He said two months ago his friends were killed in the bombing so probably his future will be like this also.”
Dror said the IDF soldiers decided to “let the children be children” for their brief time in Israel, buying them chocolate, letting them play ballgames and watch YouTube, adding: “It was amazing to see the trace of a smile.”
They appreciated it. “We bought them teddies from our own money. They had no possessions, [so] for them it was all the world, they hugged [the toys] so tight. We did the right thing and let them enjoy life a little bit. When we drove them back to the border, to hear them say toda (thank you), to see Syrian children hug IDF soldiers, nobody can imagine this.”
The operation was much bigger than teddy bears and chocolate: in just over two years, the IDF helped to set up a field hospital behind the fence on the Syrian side, delivered medical equipment for a neonatal hospital, gave 2,000 tonnes of food, more than a million litres of diesel fuel, a generator, and 50,000 items of clothing. “When the temperature is below zero, a coat for a three-year-old can save his life,” Dror says.
Last summer, the Assad regime launched offensives against the rebels in the south, prompting 40,000 Syrians to flee. “They were living in the field with nothing, just a bag they took from home,” says Dror. “We sent 700 tents so they could hide from the strong Golan sun.”
The last operation was the 10-hour rescue of 420 people comprising White Helmets and their families. These Syrian humanitarians were supported by Europe, so when regime forces closed in, they became targets. The Europeans asked Israel to help.
“I took the call. It was Friday afternoon. I co-ordinated it and they came the next night. It was incredible. They were leaving their homeland, now a place of fear, and coming to Israel and feeling relief. Their worst enemy saves their lives.”
Dror said he didn’t know much about the White Helmets until after he took them to Jordan, but was now full of respect. “For me, if somebody risks their life to save another life, they’re a brilliant man. I was glad we were able to help them. It was a privilege.”
Asked whether he thought his team had changed Syrian minds about Israel, he said: “I don’t think, I know. It’s not just the SMS messages, letters and pictures [I got] from Syrians that prove it but other things. For example, in Islamic rules, Arabic women will not shake the hand of a man. Here, they shook my hand in thanks. Children were drawing the flags of Israel and giving them to Israeli soldiers.
“So for sure it changed minds just a little bit. They have now met Israelis and know we helped them in their toughest years. They know we are not as they were taught. Nobody in this area of Syria, with 250,000 people, will forget what the state of Israel did.”