NEW YORK – Growing up in Syria, Shadi Martini was taught to stay away from Israelis: they were evil enemies seeking to kill him and his people.
Today, he works with them to help Syrians survive the devastating conflict in his country.
Earlier this month, the IDF disclosed the scope of its aid to Syrians affected by the bloodletting as part of Operation Good Neighbor, an initiative begun in June 2016 to increase civilian aid while maintaining the principle of noninvolvement in the civil war. More than 110 aid operations have been conducted since August 2016.
The IDF said it has begun working with international organizations and donors to transfer aid to more than 200,000 Syrians living close to the Israeli border.
One of these organizations is the Multifaith Alliance, an umbrella group of some 90 faith-based organizations in the United States coming together for Syrians in need. Martini is the alliance’s director of humanitarian relief and regional relations.
Martini begun his humanitarian work in 2011, as the Arab Spring was unfolding in the region and demonstrations begun in his hometown of Aleppo. At the time, he was managing a hospital there.
“We started seeing more and more people getting hurt and avoiding hospitals for fear of getting arrested,” he said. “We were seeing increased pressure from the government and security agencies who told us that if anyone comes to our facility, we have to report them and they will come to pick them up immediately.”
Martini and his team began disobeying the orders and smuggled people in and out of the facility, treating the wounded.
“They needed medical supplies and couldn’t get them, some people needed to be treated secretly,” he told The Jerusalem Post last week. “So we developed a network with friends inside Syria, and we helped people, we started smuggling things to the besieged areas.”
A year later, Martini’s operation was discovered and he had to flee Syria.
He moved to the United States, where his family had arrived earlier. Despite the danger, he continued to travel to his country, into zones where the government had no control, in order to provide aid.
“It’s a choice I had to make,” he said. “Some people chose to do nothing, just observe. I thought it was the wrong thing to do, I saw that people needed help, and regardless of who they are, if someone is suffering and injured, he should receive help.”
In 2013, Martini was approached by Israelis who wanted to send aid into Syria. He was skeptical.
“I thought maybe they were Mossad, maybe they wanted information,” he told the Post. “We were always told they are the devil, not to believe whatever they say, that they want to kill us. In a society that is not a free society, you tend not to question it. If everyone is saying that, even if it’s not true, who cares? It was part of the norm.”
But he did not want to pass on valuable aid and decided to take a chance.
He would receive the unlabeled Israeli products and distribute them into Syria. That’s when the Multifaith Alliance, which had just formed, learned about this activity, and approached him.
The organization has a three-part mission: to collect aid and raise money for organizations that help Syrian war victims, increase awareness of the crisis, and plant the seeds for stability in the region by fostering people-to-people engagement.
The alliance launched in 2013 as the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees, which at that time was made up of 16 organizations and quickly scaled up to a multi-faith initiative.
With 90 organizations now involved, it collects aid in the US and ships it to Israel where the IDF now distributes it to Syrian NGOs, as part of the Good Neighbor policy.
When the Multifaith Alliance learned about existing collaborations between Syrian and Israeli NGO s, it knew that the partnerships could have important implications not just in the immediate need of delivering aid, but for long-term relations in the region.
Dr. Georgette Bennett, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who founded the alliance, told the Post, “Israel shares a border with four of the most affected countries [by the Syrian war] and therefore it makes enormous sense for Israel to be used as a staging area for the delivery of outbound international humanitarian aid, because Israel is a reliable partner, it’s got geographical proximity, it’s got tremendous expertise in search and rescue and it’s got technology that is designed to address disaster situations.”
When this idea first came to her, Bennett and her team pitched it to officials and governments, including the State of Israel, but there were no takers.
“Government and people were just not willing to rise above the politics in order to in a very effective and efficient way address this horrific humanitarian crisis,” she said. “Most of the Israeli ministries that we spoke to were very open to this and said they would love for this to happen, but that it was completely unrealistic, because of the political toxicity.”
Only a few years later, the IDF’s Operation Good Neighbor lifted the obstacles.
“I have no idea whether the emergence of this policy has anything to do with the briefings that we did in Israel, the government may have arrived at this completely independently and I don’t care how it happened, what I care about is that it did happen,” Bennett said. “Because of the Multifaith Alliance’s network, we were immediately able to connect the IDF with partners to engage in this work with them, and uniquely connect them with specific Syrian NGOs.”
“This is something historical,” she added. “There is bridge building that’s happening because of this and it’s a two-way process.”
The Multifaith Alliance has helped to deliver about $22 million worth of aid into Syria through this new channel with the IDF.
“It becomes very much more difficult for other governments to say: ‘Israel is toxic, we can’t be associated with it, we are not going to send aid through Israel.’ Because if Syrians were the first ones to make use of this new channel then what’s their excuse?” Bennett told the Post.
The aid that the organization helps provide is mainly medical. It is also working with local groups to refurbishing a hospital close to the Israeli border, for which the IDF will likely provide water and electricity as well as facilitate the delivery of medical supplies.
In addition, special educational tablet computers are scheduled to be given to Syrian children who have been out of school.
“I see this as the one glimmer of hope that is emerging out of this horrific tragedy,” Bennett said. “Sworn enemies can rise above politics, can rise above mutual suspicion, and can even rise above hatred to develop the kind of trust that enables them to literally put their lives in each other’s hands, in order to alleviate terrible suffering.
“If the people involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict are able to rise above all that, there is hope for any conflict anywhere in the world,” she said.
Martini said that since he began working with Israel, he feels as if he has received a wake-up call, and has begun questioning everything he was taught as a child.
“It made a huge difference in my perception, in my views,” he said.
“You can find such humanity and empathy in people you thought were your enemies, and at the same time, you can feel hatred from the people that you thought were your own, your friends.
“We were lied to all our lives, and it’s time to figure [things] out for ourselves,” Martini said. “I discovered it was mainly politics. It has nothing to do with people. If you look on a human level, people are the same everywhere.”