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Israeli NGO goes undercover to help Syrians fleeing civil war

Vue d'un camp de déplacés syrien près de la ligne de démarcation sur le plateau du Golan, le 4 juillet 2018
Jawad ABU HAMZA (AFP)

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army presses forward in its campaign to retake the last rebel-held pockets in the south western Daraa province, flocks of civilians have been driven towards Israel's border.

Over the past few weeks as fighting in the area intensified, Israeli civilians, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israeli non-governmental organizations have worked to provide humanitarian aid to the internally displaced people camped just across the border.

With Israel and Syria technically in an ongoing state of war, coordinating humanitarian efforts can be perilous.

Nonetheless, NGO Israeli Flying Aid (IFA) has made it its mission to deliver life-saving aid to countries without diplomatic relations with Israel, by sending undercover volunteers into so-called "enemy territory" to send supplies to civilians in need based on local intelligence.

The group, which has previously kept its work secret, has already been covertly active in Syria for seven and a half years -- almost the entire duration of the eight-year civil war in Syria that has claimed the lives of some 350,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

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For Maya Zuckerman, IFA's COO, the group's mission to help Syrians directly is justified under chapter seven of the Rome Statue of the UN which stipulates that all foreign aid must be channeled to the state's governing authority.

"All aid goes to the regime in a disaster area," Zuckerman told i24NEWS. "That means for example, in Syria, all aid is provided to Assad."

"We're calling out to all international organizations, instead of providing aid to Assad's regime, provide the humanitarian aid through Israel," said Zuckerman. "We'll make sure it gets to the right people and the right victims of this terrible conflict and help have an international voice that will help."

IFA considers the humanitarian needs on the ground in Syria as dire, with civilians lacking access to basic needs such as clean water, medications, food and clothing.

With civilians sleeping outside, civilians have been vulnerable and susceptible to other ailments such as scorpion bites. IFA said it learned that last week 12 girls had died from the easily treatable insect bite.

- A lifeline under the radar -

IFA is able to perform its work with the help of Syrian operatives who risk their lives communicating with Israeli aid workers as to what the needs on the ground are. The supplies are then transferred to the IDF who deliver the materials.

"Our colleagues as we call them on the other side are the ones allowing us to do professional assessment, of the victims' needs," IFA Founder and CEO Gal Lusky told i24NEWS. "In the beginning we had a cover story, they never knew who we were, out of fear out of protection to our own team members."

Still, these volunteers on the other side risk their lives communicating with Israel.

"There's Iranians and Hezbollah militias that one by one target those that are brave enough to dialogue with Israel," Lusky said. "A few of them we already lost."

"They are very brave but you know they are very committed to the civilian population under the command, Lusky added. "It's very difficult because we know some of them will not last."

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"They do not have civil leadership inside Syria – they don't have mayors they don't have municipalities. They don't have social welfare departments they don't have anything," said Lusky. "So if I want to get to the 1,400 orphans I'm helping on a constant basis I need to talk to commanders – to FSA [Free Syrian Army] commanders and these FSA commanders sooner or later all will escape somewhere else or will lose their lives while fighting and how about our orphans?"

During the interview, one volunteer from the organization spoke to a member of the Free Syrian Army on speaker phone. The individual described the urgency of the civilians on the ground and said time was running out to help those in need.

"They want very much to get in touch with Israelis inside because they don't have time anymore," said Moran Levanoni, a volunteer translator for the organization. "This is one member of the FSA that we have been talking to for a long time and they are really desperate over there - they want to get in touch with Israel as soon as possible, they say they don't have anymore time."

"I call them ours because I feel the responsibility but they're not mine they're Syrian orphans," Lusky asserted. "I don't see any of the Arab countries doing any effort for them. Where are all those countries? Where are all those petrol dollars? Where is the compassion? Is there any left for the Syrians?"

"We are not going to stand silent as the whole world did many years ago during the Holocaust- we're not going to stand silent – we will operate and provide aid wherever it's needed," Zuckerman told i24NEWS.

Emily Rose is i24NEWS’ junior Middle East correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @emilyarielrose.

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