Israel's Aid Mission to Syria Shows New Possibilities With Its Arab Neighbors

Druze Israel
Israelis of the Druze minority wave their flag during a demonstration of some two thousand people in the northern Druze town of Daliyat al-Carmel, Israel, on June 14, 2015. The Druze are calling for the Israeli government to support and help their relatives in embattled Syria. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

There is more potential for Israel to do business with the Gulf countries than there has been for many years. Last week I visited the Gulf to meet with political leaders and high-level officials and I noticed a change in approach toward Israel. Israel and her neighbors now have mutual interest, particularly around technology, and common enemies in ISIS and Iran. Reports around Israel's recent aid mission in Syria show that the potential for Israel to collaborate within the region is vast.

Over the last few years Israel has established itself within the Middle East as a buffer in the fight against Iran which has been mutually beneficial for many in the region. However, reports that Israel has been providing humanitarian relief to support the Syrian people shows Israel has the capacity, knowledge and ability to provide a completely different service. They have the capabilities to positively impact the lives of thousands in the region.

Perhaps, when you think about whose responsibility it is to contribute humanitarian aid to Syria, Israel would not be top of the list. The historical tensions are well documented and are ongoing. Yet we are now seeing reports that Israel is not just supporting the humanitarian efforts, but taking a lead. As one report stated, Syrian children have told journalists: "They teach us that Israel is the country that hates us the most. We came and saw with our own eyes what they are giving us here."

It is not surprising that Syrians are taught to hate Israelis. Nor is it surprising that Israel is rolling up her sleeves and providing practical support. Sadly, we do not hear enough about this type of project in the media.

The project has been going on for almost a year and yet reports have only circulated in the last few weeks. But Israel has a long history of humanitarian work that has included aid and field hospitals set up in Haiti following hurricanes in the country and medical aid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, an intervention this close to home is more than just a gesture or a sharing of expertise. As Reuters reported, "[Israeli] 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."

Israel felt a moral duty to help.

While some media may have reacted cynically, claiming that this effort is only to create a cushion between Israel and a potential enemy, the breadth of activity suggests something much deeper. It is important to understand how much effort is involved in helping 200,000 Syrians. The project's scale gives it credibility, as reports suggest that 360 tons of food, 456,000 liters of gas, 100 tons of clothes and thousands of packages of baby formula and diapers make up just some of the aid that Israel has provided.

For too long it has been commonplace to portray Israel's army as unemotional enforcers who only use their might to battle unarmed and often defenseless enemies in Gaza, or as a barrier to the growing threats posed by Iran. The truth is very different. The international community needs to recognize the unheralded humanitarian and disaster relief role Israel plays around the world.

Israel has had to protect her borders and that has led to military interventions. But it has long been my belief that Israel is at her best when she is engaging peacefully with the outside world. We have seen huge progress made in global trade as well as other areas. There is now an opportunity for this to be extended to providing aid to those across the region. This would not have to be in the form of resources, it could also be about training personnel or sharing expertise. The potential is there for Israel to have a social and humanitarian impact far beyond her own borders.

My trips to the Gulf have shown me that there is hope. The mood seems to be indicating that it is possible for the Gulf nations to do more than business together if the right climate is created. It is my hope that in the long term Israel could even become a force for peace across the region.

Jack Rosen is chairman of the American Jewish Congress.