Across enemy lines, wounded Syrians seek Israeli care
Not a hundred miles from Damascus, a Syrian rebel lies in a hospital bed, an Israeli sentry at the door. Nearby a Syrian mother sits next to her daughter, shot in the back by a sniper.
What started this year as a trickle is now a steady flow of Syrians, scores of civilians and fighters wounded in the civil war and being discreetly brought across the Golan frontline into Israel — a country with which Syria is formally still at war.
For all the advantages it brings of excellent medical care, it is a journey fraught with risk for those who fear the wrath of President Bashar Assad's government.
“There was one man, where I am from, who was treated in Israel. The regime forces killed his three brothers,” the teenage girl's mother said. “They will kill my sons and my husband if they ever find out we were here.”
For fear of retribution back home, Syrians in Israeli clinics who spoke to Reuters asked not to be named.
The woman's 16-year-old daughter, whose wounds have left her paralysed in both legs, lies stone-faced as an Israeli hospital clown juggles and dances, trying in vain to raise a smile.
For the past month, she has been at the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, about 50 miles west of the U.N.-monitored ceasefire line in the Golan Heights that has kept Israeli and Syrian forces apart since they fought in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
A few weeks ago, a battle was raging in her home village between Assad's forces and rebel fighters. There was a lull, her mother said, and the girl opened the front door to see if it was safe out. Her aunt told her to shut it again because there was a sniper in the house opposite. As she did so, he shot her.
“I saw her falling to the floor, in all the blood,” her mother recounted. “I was terrified I was going to lose her. I said 'Please, I don't want to bury my children one by one'.”
The girl was rushed to a rebel field hospital, where Syrian medics removed a bullet lodged in a lung. But they could not provide the further care she needed. The girl, they said, should be taken across the border, to Jordan or to Israel.
“We would get Israeli television channels in my village. I knew that medicine here is advanced,” the mother said. “In Jordan I would have to pay for it and we do not have enough money. Here it is free.”
The woman declined to say exactly how she and her daughter reached the Israeli lines in the Golan so that soldiers could transport them to hospital. She did say that Syrian rebel fighters helped them reach the area of the Israel-Syria front.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war which began in 2011. According to the United Nations, more than 2 million refugees have fled the country, most to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey. Of the population of about 20 million, one third is displaced, either inside or outside Syria.
Israel refuses to accept refugees from a country with which it is still technically at war. But it does provide medical care and, always concerned to counter the negative image it has in most of the Arab world, it has made no secret of doing so.
The Nahariya hospital has treated more than 80 Syrian patients since March, around the time the Israeli military began taking in wounded Syrians who reach its lines seeking help.
The army does not reveal how the Syrians are brought over, nor whether it coordinates with rebels or others who deliver them into Israeli hands. “This is a very sensitive issue and people's lives are at stake,” a military spokeswoman said.
U.N. military observers based along the 45-mile ceasefire line did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967 and much of its population, many of them from the Druze sect, resettled beyond the ceasefire line in Syria. A small Arab Druze community remained under Israeli occupation and has kept in contact with relatives inside Syria.
The Israeli army has set up a field hospital on a mountain ridge that overlooks a cluster of Syrian villages on the plain.
Gunfire and explosions from battles there often sound across the frontline fence. Some wounded Syrians who have reached the boundary have been treated at the Israeli field hospital and then sent back. Others are transported to hospitals in Israel.
“We don't know how they come in,” said Shukri Kassis, a doctor at the Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli town of Safed, 25 miles from the Syrian frontline. “We just get notified by the army doctors that they are bringing them here.”
Kassis said his clinic had taken in more than 90 Syrians since February. The Israel government declines to give a total figure for how many have been treated in its hospitals.
Staff at Nahariya said one man they treated had survived his own execution. He was shot at close range in the back of the head. Another young woman was shot in the head by a sniper.
Both are now back in Syria, their fate unknown. “It is very hard for us, after they go back, not knowing what happens to them after they return,” said Naama Shachar, head nurse at the children's intensive care unit in Nahariya.
In another ward, a man in his 20s sat up in bed staring down at his thigh, his lower leg now gone. He said he was a fighter in the Free Syrian Army. He was shot in a battle with Assad's forces a few weeks ago. He did not say where.
He recalled medics at a rebel field hospital trying to save his left leg but had no memory of how he got to Israel, a journey long enough for gangrene to turn his flesh black.
“I remember waking up in the emergency room,” he said. “The doctor said that to save my life they must amputate my leg and he asked me to sign the consent.”
The International Red Cross visits patients and offers assistance in contacting families. Some patients say they have sent word back home. Others fear that any message revealing their whereabouts would endanger their relatives.
The 16-year-old's mother has had no contact with her six other children left behind. “I worry about them all the time, if they are safe or not. There is no phone, only God to pray to,” she said, pointing upwards as her eyes welled up with tears.
FRIEND OR FOE
Israel has not taken sides in the Syrian war. Assad, allied with Israel's arch-enemy Iran, is also helped by fighters from Lebanese militia Hezbollah, another long-time foe. But those they combat worry Israel too. Among the rebels are al Qaeda-linked Islamists, also no friends of the Jewish state.
At the hospitals, the army stations military police outside the rooms of most male patients. Many of these, staff said, have come in with wounds most likely sustained in combat. At Ziv, doctors checking one fighter's pockets found a hand grenade.
“They could be al Qaeda. We just don't know,” one staff member said, adding that the men were being guarded for their own safety too – in case of disputes among patients.
With many Israeli medical staff being native Arabic speakers, communication with Syrian patients presents little problem. And many of the wounded and relatives have responded to a welcoming environment by modifying hostile views of Israel.
“For us, Israel was always the enemy,” one Syrian woman from the southern city of Deraa said at Ziv, where she and her eight-year-old daughter were being treated after being caught in an explosion. “Thank God, I am happy here. I am well treated.”
The Free Syrian Army fighter said word of Israeli treatment was spreading back home: “I was happy when I found I was here,” he said. “Most fighters know they will get good care in Israel.”
Medical staff say they make no distinctions among those they treat and some have formed close bonds with Syrian patients:
“In medicine there are no borders, no colour, no nationality,” said Oscar Embon, director general of the Ziv Medical Center in Safed. “You treat each and every person and I am proud that we are able to do this.”