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Clandestine help

Kate Shuttleworth, Jerusalem
November 6, 2013

Most people who work for charity or an aid project have no reservations about being open about it, but a group of young Israelis are putting their lives in danger to deliver aid and medical assistance to Syrians.

An Israeli medical staff tends to a Syrian youth, who was wounded in the ongoing violence in Syria, as he lies on a hospital bed during his treatment at Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Safed on August 28 2013. Dozens of Syrians have been taken across the border in the Golan Heights for treatment in Israeli facilities since the outbreak of violence in the Jewish state's northern neighbor. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli doctors and aid workers are doing their work in secret because of the animosity between Syria and Israel - when they visit refugee camps on the border of Syria they have to change their clothes in order to blend in and have to be smuggled in and out.

Syria does not recognize Israel and its citizens are banned from going there, which has meant that Israel has been anxious to stay out of the Syrian civil war, officially not doing anything for the over two million refugees who have fled. A small number of injured Syrians are being treated in Israel's hospitals, but that, on the surface, is the extent of Israeli help for the victims of the civil war.

However, one Israeli non-profit organisation has been working under the radar since 2005 around the world and in the last two years its attention has focused on Syria, providing up to 670 tonnes of food, 300,000 dry meals, 70 tonnes of sanitation items and 20 tonnes of medication.

The aid doesn't stop there. The group, called "IL 4 Syrians," has been sneaking post-trauma care specialists into conflict zones to help.

A clandestine mission

Up to 1,200 Israelis work for the organization and wish to remain anonymous in order to protect their lives and their work. The volunteers, who have completed military service, come from a variety of backgrounds and work in four fields - medical, post-trauma care, mass feeding and rescue. They train Syrian nurses and community workers to work in the refugee camps.

One of the founders, who uses the fake name Gila, said the group was not trying to fill in the gaps for the Israeli government.

"We do want to help organizations who are not currently receiving official help from Israel," she told DW. "We're not invited in - we've worked in Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq, Indonesia and for all those years we were never invited in - we go in and out to get the work done," she said.

No directors, names or contacts are listed on the group's website, simply a statement saying that "we focus on countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel, transcending differences." They argue that the sanctity of human life should be respected as part of Jewish tradition and culture. "This applies to Israel's toughest and cruelest enemies as well as anyone else."

Gila said that when Syrians find out that Israelis are helping them, their reactions are mixed. She said she recently met with a group of Syrian political leaders and eventually disclosed she was Israeli. "To continually lie is a burden and it's a heavy one - it's against my values."

Gila told the Syrian leaders the aid she was facilitating into Syria largely came from Israelis, and they were shocked.

"One of them stood up and shouted at me saying 'you're not even my friend, you're my enemy.' He almost broke the table."

She said the men decided to cast a vote on whether they could still work with Gila and her team - the result is that they now work together on aid for Syrians.

In another case she arranged for a Syrian man's son to receive life-saving heart surgery in Jerusalem. "It was a very emotional time for him, he was initially nervous about Israel. He showed me a cellphone photo of the aid distribution boxes he had been helping distribute in Syria and I pulled out an identical photo showing him I was behind that aid - he said he was amazed Israelis were helping when their own President (Bashar al-) Assad wasn't protecting them."

Covert treatment

Near the Golan Heights, scores of patients have been covertly brought across the border from Syria to be treated by Israeli doctors. The hospitals rarely reveal how the person arrived at the hospital, usually saying Israeli Defense Force personnel brought them.

Some of the IL4 Syrians members have performed life-saving operations in field surgery tents they have sent to conflict zones that are designed to be as sterile as possible. They have supplied emergency medical aid kits that include IVs, saline, bandages, disposable wound treatment, sewings kits for surgery and disinfectant liquid and ointment.

The volunteers are under no illusions that they are putting themselves in danger by crossing into a country out-of-bounds for Israelis. "Nobody asks permission to kill. We do not ask permission to save lives," says Gila. "We believe that if US strikes were to take place, Assad will use more chemical weapons."

She said the group distributed 500 digital cameras to Syrians prior to the chemical weapons attack and she believes some of the photos the world saw came from those cameras.

The group has encountered significant challenges while operating undercover, with the Muslim Brotherhood refusing to allow some people to access aid that has been distributed at mosques.

Gila said that many of her colleagues have families and she understand the risks faced by those standing up to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Syrian government.

"There is no smart way to deal with fear. But the choice to do this, to feel that you are in the right place at the right time and that you are helping make a significant change, is so rewarding."

An Israeli medical staff tends to a Syrian man, who was wounded in the ongoing violence in Syria, as he lies on a hospital bed during his treatment at Ziv hospital MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
The group has provided medical assistance to SyriansImage: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Young Syrian refugees transport mattresses through the Zaatari refugee camp KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian refugees need all the help they can getImage: Getty Images
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