Despite grave risks, Israeli Gal Lusky has been going undercover into Syria to aid victims of the civil war. She has now revealed her identity.
By Nicky Blackburn, Israel21c
We’re standing on a small Israeli hilltop on the Golan Heights looking into Syria. The hill slopes down to Israel’s well-fortified border fence. Just a few hundred meters further on there are scores of makeshift white and orange tents – a new tent village that has suddenly appeared in the last few weeks as tens of thousands of Syrian civilians flee their homes before Bashar Assad’s advancing armies.
It’s hot, too hot, that scorching heavy heat of a Middle Eastern July. Up on our hillside we pass bottles of water constantly, but the people below don’t have the same luxury. Drinking water is scarce, as are most other necessities. In the last week, 15 children died of scorpion bites here, because the floors of the tents are open to the ground.
It’s one thing to read about the Syrian refugees online, or to hear about them in the news; it’s quite another to see them for yourself.
Dozens of children are running through the camp, shrouded women following behind, picking their way carefully through the stones. On a road winding through the tents, motorbikes cruise by. This is just one small camp. Larger ones dot the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
In the distance, a constant reminder of what these people are running from, smoke from an artillery shell rises into the air. The sound of shelling is frequent, and it’s growing closer – a disturbing soundtrack of war interrupting the normal tranquility of these border hills.
We’re here to interview Gal Lusky, the founder of Israeli Flying Aid. She’s a petite woman with dark hair, whose work I have admired and followed for years. She goes undercover into conflict zones, even into enemy countries, to bring victims vital aid. Often hers is the only NGO to come into these areas.
Really Dangerous Work
Lusky is the bravest woman I have ever met. Her work is dangerous. Really dangerous. The stuff of thrillers. Both she and some of her volunteers have been injured on missions.
For seven and a half years she has been finding her way into Syria, in the midst of a bloody and brutal civil war, to bring in aid, knowing that if she is discovered, as an Israeli Jew, she would most likely be executed immediately.
Despite these dangers, in February 2016, Gal trusted ISRAEL21c to tell her story. Using a fake name to hide her identity we were one of the first media outlets to describe her astonishing work in Syria.
Her decision to speak to us then came not long after she finally came clean that she was Israeli to two of the Syrian leaders she worked with. Their initial reaction was horror and anger. “They said that first they would deal with Assad, and then they would deal with Israel,” Lusky tells us.
When they finally changed their minds a few months later, and decided to work with IFA again, Lusky came on her own to finalize the details, even though it could have been a trap.
She believes that their initial anger has now been replaced by gratitude.
“No one would have been allowed to stand here in Assad’s day,” Lusky points out, as we stand on the hilltop. “We are in sniper’s distance. But these people are grateful for what we’ve done for them. They wouldn’t hurt us.”
Does she have friends in the refugee camp below us?
“Yes,” says Lusky, turning to look at the tents – many of which were provided by the IFA alongside food and medicines, and delivered by the Israel Defense Forces through its wide-ranging program, Operation Good Neighbor. “Sometimes we have dates here, waving opportunities.”
Lusky, who was born on Kibbutz Hokok, decided to devote her life to aid work when her brother was wounded serving in the army in Lebanon in 1992. She quit university and sat by his bedside.
‘Blessed to be Born in Israel’
“That year in the hospital made me understand how blessed I was to be born in Israel with its amazing medical infrastructure, and I wanted to bring this to others in the world,” she told ISRAEL21c in a 2015 interview.
She founded IFA in 2005, and has been working in countries like Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Chechnya.
IFA was one of the first international NGOs to begin working in Syria in the early days of the conflict, when it was still an uprising, rather than an entrenched and bitter war. It is one of only a handful of international NGOs working there.
Until three weeks ago, no one internationally knew that the organization had Israeli roots, but a few days before our meeting, the IDF, which also provides significant aid to the Syrians, decided to announce that they were working together. Finally, Lusky stepped out of the shadows.
She and her team of 200 volunteers, most of whom speak Arabic fluently, bring in tents, food, medical supplies, hygienic products, baby formula, clothes and even chemical suits. The organization has sent millions of dollars’ worth of medical equipment and supplies to support 14 hospitals and clinics in Syria, and has equipped and trained Syrians in search-and-rescue and firefighting.
In one of IFA’s first missions in Syria, the supplies were brought across the mountains on donkeys. Lusky sends me a video of dozens of donkeys trekking through the snow. There’s the sound of gunfire and shouting. It looks and sounds like a Hollywood spy movie.
Funding for the missions comes through donations. Lusky tells us about a 13-year-old American boy who donated the gift money from his bar mitzvah. “It provided aid for three months through the winter.”
Relief is coordinated with the locals to make sure they receive the things they really need. Only necessities are sent in. At the new refugee camps, the IDF brings the aid in at night through gates in the fence. “I wouldn’t want to put the IDF soldiers in danger if it’s not an absolute necessity,” says Lusky.
“What do the people do here all day?” I ask, staring out at the endless dry, barren landscape ahead of us. Lusky shrugs. “Survive,” she says.
“Are they safe here?” I ask.
The truth is, nobody really knows. This is the demilitarized zone, and shelling here would risk an all-out confrontation with Israel. This is why these people are here. It’s the only place left in Syria where they feel some measure of safety. But shells have gone astray in the past, and Assad’s army is drawing closer all the time, hitting rebel holdouts in the nearby Daraa region.
Just a week ago, around 200 Syrian refugees approached the Israeli border waving white flags after a Russian airstrike on a nearby school used as a shelter killed 10 civilians.
Last week, the IDF rescued 800 Syrian search and rescue volunteers and their families from the border. The lives of the White Helmets, who saved thousands of lives during the conflict and who were trained in search and rescue by Lusky’s IFA, were in serious danger from Assad’s forces.
“How long will the refugees still on the border stay?”
It’s another question with no answer. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in years to come this became a proper village,” says Maya Zuckerman, IFA’s chief operating officer, looking out at the camp behind her.
We were supposed to go on to another location, but the army has closed the gate. They are worried about possible spillover in the fighting, and don’t want to risk anyone’s life.
It’s a legitimate concern. As we prepare to leave, we hear a large explosion. A few seconds later a huge pillar of smoke and dust rises on the horizon. A news flash later reveals that Israel has just bombed a Syrian artillery post after a shell was fired into the demilitarized zone.
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to our nice air-conditioned homes in the center of Israel, and on the way we talk about what we’ve seen and heard. My producer is upset about the children. We are all upset about the children, those tiny figures running across the stony, barren valley.
Where is the Rest of the World?
“Couldn’t they send in some coloring books and pencils and games for them?” he asks. “Another few boxes, alongside the other aid.”
But when you don’t have essentials like anti-venom for scorpion bites and children are dying because of it, paper and pencil are luxuries.
About a week later, we hear that the IDF does indeed deliver tons of donated goods from Israel including clothes, food, blankets, shoes, sunshades, games and messages of blessing and support from families all over the Golan Heights and the rest of Israel.
It’s a small comfort in a terrible situation, but one can’t help but wonder – as Lusky herself has been wondering for years – where is the rest of the world in all of this?