July 20, 2017 / 2:50 PM / a month ago

On Israel's Syria front, aid turns into hearts-and-minds drive

A Syrian youth lays on a hospital bed as he receives medical treatment in Ziv Medical Center in Safed, northern Israel January 19, 2017.Baz Ratner/Files

GOOD NEIGHBOUR ADMINISTRATIVE CENTER, Golan Heights (Reuters) - Israel has shifted from low-key humanitarian aid for Syrian civil war victims into a hearts-and-minds campaign billed as fostering new friends across a frontier that has been hostile for decades.

Under a year-old expanded relief project disclosed to media this week, groups of Syrians have been admitted to Israel for routine medical treatment, while food, fuel and building supplies have been regularly shipped the other way.

The scale of the assistance pales next to the intake of refugees by neighbouring Turkey and Jordan. But it marks a big turn for Israel, which at first preferred to seal off Syria while providing only ad hoc hospitalisation for war casualties who made their own way to the Golan Heights armistice line.

The Israeli army says it pushed for more humanitarian intervention in the face of the Netanyahu government's declared neutrality on the six-year-old conflict in Syria, an old foe.

Commanders say they were frustrated at doing nothing while atrocities like public beheadings by Islamic State-aligned fighters could be seen in Syrian towns just 5 km (3 miles) away.

"I think that this is our basic duty, as neighbours and as Jews," the armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, said in a PR video about the project, dubbed "Good Neighbour".

There are colder-eyed calculations. Stabilising the 70-km (40-mile)-long Syrian frontier, where Israel says a third of residents are displaced people from the interior, helps stave off any attempted refugee influx across the Golan fence. And with Syria fragmenting, the Israeli army hopes the beneficiaries of the aid will be less likely to be adversaries in the future.

SEEDS OF PEACE?

A wounded Syrian girl sits on a hospital bed at Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli town of Safed September 9, 2013.Baz Ratner/Files

A July 7 partial ceasefire brokered by Russia, the United States and Jordan has calmed the Syrian-held side of the Golan. Fighting there had subsided since last year, with rival factions mostly keeping to areas they control, the Israeli army says.

That has given Israel, which captured the plateau from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognised internationally, space to map out which of the Syrians there it might engage with to build goodwill and communication channels.

"This may not be our main objective, or some grand strategy, but maybe here we are planting the first seeds of this-or-that (non-belligerence) deal," an Israeli army officer, surrounded by containers of hospital equipment, baby diapers and generators, told reporters at the Good Neighbour administrative centre.

Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks in the Golan Heights near Israel's border with Syria March 19, 2014.Ronen Zvulun/Files

As if to underscore this longer-term goal, some 600 children with disabilities or diseases like cancer and diabetes have been brought in for treatment under the programme, on top of the roughly 3,000 war-wounded Syrians hospitalised since March 2013.

One especially sick child stayed in Israel for six months, though most are returned after a day, military commanders say. Costs are borne by Israel. A half-dozen international NGOs provide donations and the staffing for two clinics over the armistice line. A hospital is planned nearby.

Asked about Good Neighbour's budget, a senior Israeli commander said "large" without elaborating. Asked whether Israel was also providing friendly rebels with weapons or funds, Good Neighbour's staff said their project was "purely humanitarian".

Israel has been stung by rumours it is helping Syrian jihadis such as the former Al Nusra Front. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied any such links exist. Commanders of the Golan garrison said neither ex-Nusra nor Islamic State loyalists are given assistance, including medical aid.

Coordination of humanitarian aid involves "village elders" on the Syrian side and international agencies, one officer said. He declined to elaborate, but he said Israel no longer scrubs Hebrew labels off the donated goods, to prevent the Syrian recipients suffering reprisals - a sign of budding normalcy.

"The other side is awash with Israeli products now, and no one seems to mind," the officer said.

Editing by Larry King

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