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'Israel Is the Most Humane Country in the Middle East': Why Syria's Southern Neighbors Are Working on Their PR

VICE News was in the Golan Heights to see how Israel is using both hard and soft power to extend influence into Syria — gaining positive PR, goodwill among civilians, and intelligence about possible threats.

by Sara Elizabeth Williams
Aug 21 2015, 12:30pm

Photo by Atef Safadi/EPA

The leafy top of Mount Bental, on the Israeli side of the disputed Golan Heights, offers a café and souvenir store, a seasonal fruit stand, and an unimpeded view of the smoking ruins of Syria's civil war.

The bucolic lookout point has long marked the formal boundary between Israel and its eastern neighbor. By day, tourists and school-trippers wander among blue-hatted UN monitors and green-fatigued Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. Below, workers from a nearby kibbutz tend to a 1.2-mile-wide section of farmland bordered, on the east, by a solid gray fence. Beyond is Syria, deceptively still in the mid-summer heat.

On Thursday, IDF artillery and warplanes struck targets in Syria after four rockets fired from Syrian territory landed in northern Israel earlier in the day, amid conflicting reports as to who was to blame.

In the Golan Heights, Israeli control officially ends at the gray fence, but the country's influence — in the form of bulldozers, warplanes, and unconfirmed reports of weapons — is actively stretching further east.

A fire near Kfar Sold, northern Israel, caused by four missiles fired from the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border hitting open areas in the Golan Heights and Galilee on Thursday. Israel struck targets in Syria in response. Photo by Ancho Gosh/EPA

On July 8, IDF soldiers dismantled a tented settlement known as Ash-Shahar, which had provided makeshift shelter for 6,000 displaced Syrians scattered over 10 acres of land. The settlement was near the village of Jabatha al-Khashab, at the very northwest of Syria's Quneitra Governorate — and clearly within the UN-monitored demilitarized zone.

This part of Syria is so isolated that it took several days for the incident to be verified by humanitarian monitors. According to eyewitnesses, around 100 IDF ground forces provided military cover as the camp was dismantled. The operation reportedly included three Merkava tanks, two bulldozers, and a Caterpillar-type excavator.

The presence of sprawling, unregulated settlements so close to a hot border is dangerous for parties on both sides: the displaced Syrians are exposed to heightened war risk, and the camp could offer shelter and cover to elements hostile to Israel.

Related: The Islamic State Vs. Assad: Syria's Future Darkens Further

According to internal humanitarian documents made available to VICE News, Israel had known about this settlement and four others like it for at least two years and had "actively facilitated the establishment of some of them." For this reason, the documents call the camp's destruction, 500 meters beyond the Alpha line into the demilitarized UN Zone, "a significant change of policy on the part of the Israeli Army."

Then in the last week of July, Israeli aircraft reportedly struck a vehicle just outside the Syrian town of Khader, a Druze village in the north of the Golan Heights, killing two members of a government-allied militia. According to some reports, the plane that carried out the attack was unmanned.

Including Thursday's incidents, this is part of an uptick in Israeli presence — both hard and soft power — in the Golan.

Israeli soldiers on their tank watching the fighting in the Druze village of Hadar on the Syrian side of the border in June. Photo by Atef Safadi/EPA

By far the most active front of Israel's increased dealings with the Syrian war is the medical care it provides to ill and wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals. Since the first patients arrived on February 16, 2013, nearly 2,000 Syrians, the majority of them men, have come through the Golan border fence.

"It's almost every day that we have people coming," said an observer of the IDF's operations in the Golan, speaking anonymously as he is not authorized to discuss procedure along the border. He and others working in the area noted a distinct uptick in arrivals in the past six months to a year.

Most patients come through the three gates near Mount Bental. They tend to approach the fence late at night, when darkness offers some protection from the myriad armed factions on their own side.

Related: Inside the Hospital Where Israeli Doctors Treat Syrian Patients

On the Israeli side, there are no surprises: Observation towers to the north and south, and the antenna-spiked early warning station on the top of nearby Mount Hermon keep a high-tech and human eye on both sides of the fence. Any movement is registered by night-visioned IDF sentries from miles away, so it's in Syrians' interests to telegraph their approach and make clear they come in peace.

People who have observed the operation say IDF snipers monitor the approach as a medical team musters for possible action. Israeli military sources deny radio or telephone contact with rebels or civilians on the other side, though UN troops monitoring the area say they have documented IDF personnel speaking with members of militant group Jabhat al Nusra.

In many cases, unconscious Syrians are brought to the gate and left there. Observers say what ensues is a slow, cautious approach, ultimately leading to the fence being opened and wounded Syrians being loaded into an IDF ambulance. They're sent either to a nearby military medical facility that has been set up for Syrians, or to Ziv Medical Center, 40 minutes away.

Armed men believed to be Syrian rebel fighters are seen through a fence at the Quneitra crossing, the only border crossing between Israel and Syria, in the Golan Heights, in August 2014. Photo by Atef Safadi/EPA

Over the past year, the flow of patients into Israel has both increased and grown more complex. It's not uncommon for a pregnant woman to approach the fence, hoping to deliver in Israel. Wounded children tend to come with a parent — typically their mother.

"We prefer parents accompany children, even though often they end up staying in Israel for several months," Linda Futterman, director of international relations at Ziv, told VICE News.

Medics agree. "The kids who are coming across have usually been badly wounded, and once they get better, they want their mummy. Everyone does. So now they come with their mother," said a doctor who declined to be named.

All patients are returned the way they came: under cover of darkness, the gate is opened, and patients and parents are sent home. Those who don't survive are sent the same way. Bodies are treated by a rabbi and placed in a body bag, which is passed through the gate and left on the ground on the Syrian side.

Israel's practice of letting parents accompany injured children differs starkly from Jordan, where the standard approach is for children to come alone. In Jordan, too, limited budgets, more patients and smaller, less-skilled surgical teams mean the standard operating procedure is to remove a damaged limb — not, as in Israel, devote hours of costly surgery to repairing it.

Syrians whose teeth have been knocked out with the butt of a rifle can expect little in the way of reconstructive dental work in Jordan. But in Israel, they may get new teeth, paid for via community collection.

'While the treatment of injured Syrians in Israeli hospitals is a humanitarian effort, the impetus behind it is absolutely not humanitarian and Syrians are well-aware of this.'

Increasingly, cases Jordanian hospitals cannot care for are rerouted to the Golan. Humanitarian agencies say at least four wounded Syrians who arrived at the Jordanian border have been sent on to Israel in the past month.

All of this has done remarkable things for Israeli-Syrian relations in rebel-held stretches of southern Syria. According to one Syrian opposition commander speaking in Amman: "Israel is the most humane country in the Middle East."

And that, said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Syria researcher at Israel's Forum for Regional Thinking, is exactly the result Israel is looking for.

"This is a humane but also a very smart policy for Israel — its gets positive PR for treating Syrians, goodwill among civilians on the other side of the border fence, and intelligence about possible threats from southern Syria," she told VICE News.

Related: Learning to Fight Like an American at the Free Syrian Army Training Camp

In the past, Israel could rely on Syria's Baath regime to keep the border quiet. But with much of Quneitra now out of the government's control, Israel is increasingly looking to Golan residents to do the job. And it is no secret, said Tsurkov, that medical treatment of rebels in Israel is conditioned on them not attacking Israel and keeping Islamic State (IS or ISIS) militants at bay.

"While the treatment of injured Syrians in Israeli hospitals is a humanitarian effort, the impetus behind it is absolutely not humanitarian and Syrians are well-aware of this," she said.

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, said this pragmatic approach offers southern Syria's neighbors the chance to understand and build trust with whatever new political reality is forming there.

"This is part of a general strategy, which Jordan shares, of keeping ISIS out of southern Syria through the use of soft as well as hard power," he told VICE News.

Jewish tourists on a guided tour as they watch the Syria side of the border (in the background), from a location near an old army outpost in Mount Bental. Photo by Atef Safadi/EPA

Jordan and Israel have long been known to share vast amounts of intelligence, but in recent weeks their collaboration became more apparent, as Israel donated 16 Cobra attack helicopters to Jordan to shore up defenses against IS along the Syrian and Iraqi borders.

Around the same time, Israeli newspaper Haaretz released its own take on a Lebanese news site's report that Israel has sought to arm Syrian rebels.

The reports are as yet unsubstantiated and Al Akhbar, the site that first published the allegations, is known to be associated with Hezbollah. But set among so many instances of hard and soft policies inching Israel closer to Syria's war and closer co-operation with Jordan, there is a cumulative suggestion that southern Syria's neighbors are pulling together to work with the dominant forces there to protect their own interests.

"I would expect more of the behind the scenes cooperation between Jordan, Israel and the US to make it into the limelight," said Tabler.

"Like all of Syria's neighbors, Israel is looking at options of how to carve out a sphere of influence inside of Syria in the name of stabilization."

Follow Sara Williams on Twitter: @saraewilliams