Israeli military and medical personnel are forging an unlikely bond with their Syrian ‘enemies’

By Juliana Darrow

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Soldiers in the IDF Medical Corps treat wounded Syrian. (Photo: IDF Spokesman's Unit)

Since the start of the Syrian Civil war in 2011, 400,000 Syrians have been killed, 4.81 million have fled and an additional 6.3 million have been internally displaced.

Americans hear the shocking tales of destruction, stare at the horrifying images coming from across the globe, and wonder how they could possibly help. Meanwhile, Israelis living next-door to the conflict have chosen to involve themselves directly by opening up their hospitals to wounded Syrians. They are doing everything they can to help alleviate their neighbors’ suffering.

Most Syrians are taught that Israelis are their worst enemies – but thanks to Israel’s incredible humanitarian efforts during this war, attitudes are beginning to change.

Israel shares a 40-mile border with Syria in the Golan Heights region, the northeast part of the country. Despite former hostilities between the two nations, Israel’s medical facilities have become a safe haven for desperate Syrians wounded in the ongoing conflict. Many of Syria’s own hospitals are no longer functioning, and Syria’s physicians have been forced to flee – causing thousands of Syrians to seek sanctuary and care in a country they have been taught to hate. While the exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that at least 4,000 Syrians have been treated in Israel since 2013.

Many Syrian patients are transported across the border by Israel’s own military, the Israeli Defense Forces. IDF soldiers do a relatively quick analysis of the patients and then perform a triage of their injuries before transporting them to Israeli hospitals. There are no permanent field hospitals at the border itself, as they are not practical due to the severity of the Syrian people’s wounds. Maintaining permanent field hospitals is also a security threat, because if the locations were discovered, they would quickly become easy targets.

Col. Richard Kemp, a British military commander who recently visited the Israeli border, described how triage is completed. The field stations along the Syrian border experience a steady flow of patients, especially when there is fighting going on in the region. IDF soldiers do not travel into Syria looking for patients; the victims come to them. The Israeli military members are always ready for Syrian casualties, and are especially alert following an attack. Established mechanisms and specific meeting points near the border can be monitored by IDF surveillance; Israeli soldiers are then able to retrieve Syrians in need of treatment. Relationships between Syrian and Israeli doctors and other community leaders help coordinate transfer when necessary.

Treatment is first and foremost a humanitarian operation. Israel will not treat sworn enemies of the state – such as Hezbollah or Islamic State fighters. Likewise, known terrorists do not seek treatment in Israel. But there are sometimes people who fall between the cracks, because treatment is given to all who need it.

Many ask what the Israeli military’s motivation is for helping a country that has always been a hostile enemy. According to Kemp, the primary reason is “to make known the reality of what Israel is.” When wounded Syrians have good experiences in Israeli hospitals, they spread the truth about Israel. The same goes for others in the international community. It is important for critics of the Jewish State to see Israelis helping their Muslim neighbors.

Israelis understand that medical care serves as a bridge between the two communities and is vital for future goodwill. Many see it as the least their country can do, and as a necessary contribution to help alleviate some of the suffering of war.

Non-government organizations and private funds often support Israeli hospitals and patients by supplying games, clothes and computers for the many children who have to stay in Israel for long periods of time without their parents or other support systems.

Israel will continue to aid those in need, even though the government is not hopeful for a nonviolent solution to the Syrian conflict. In a statement last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel’s support for wounded Syrians:

Will it come together and be a unified Syria? I doubt it. I think you have enclaves there and they are not about to disappear, but the suffering is great, and the one initiative we took is to help … thousands of Syrians who are sometimes mutilated beyond belief. We help them. I offered to do more today. I don’t know if we can resolve [the crisis in] Syria, but we can help mitigate some of the suffering. That is the best that Israel can do.

This Israeli example should serve as a powerful reminder of how compassion, generosity and forgiveness can make a tangible difference in working toward peace.

Four Israeli hospitals currently treat wounded Syrians. Ziv Medical Center in the city of Safed receives the most critically injured patients. Ziv (located 19 miles from the border) treated its first Syrian patients in February 2013 and boasts a total of 331 beds and seven operating rooms. A ride in an IDF ambulance will get patients to the hospital in less than an hour. Many civilians also cross the border independently to seek care at Ziv. Those patients include not only men fighting in the conflict, but also women and children. One-third of the injured Syrians seen at the hospital are children.

Medical necessity is the predominate determination for treatment at Ziv. Israeli doctors and military personnel treat Syrians with a no-questions-asked policy, even though that means they are placing their own lives at risk. In one case, a Syrian man was taken directly to an operating room; it was not until the Israeli doctors were preparing to perform surgery that they realized he had two live grenades on his body. Israelis make the daily decision to risk their own safety and treat all patients with one standard: providing the best care despite nationality.

In a recent interview with The Journal of American Medicine, Dr. Salman Zarka – the director of Ziv Medical Center – reported that the hospital treats 10–20 wounded Syrians every day. Some patients arrive with a pinned note explaining their injuries, while others show up with no explanation at all. Doctors at Ziv treat children with bomb and shrapnel wounds; many have lost limbs and are in desperate need of lifesaving surgeries. The most common injuries are those that are the result of landmines and barrel bombs. Aerial bombings cause the need for a large number of ligament and bone reconstruction procedures. Due to the time-consuming nature of the operations, many Syrian patients stay in Israeli hospitals for up to a year.

Along with the physical suffering comes much psychological trauma for Syrians who have endured six long years of war. Ziv employs Arabic-speaking social workers who address patients’ fears and help them process the fact that they were treated by Israeli doctors – people they have been taught to see as their enemies. When treatment is complete, the Syrians return home, often worried that there will be repercussions from the Syrian government for receiving treatment in Israel. The doctors at Ziv are careful to leave no evidence behind that the Syrians have received care at their hands; they pour medicine out of Hebrew-labeled bottles into blank containers and remove the brands on medical equipment.

A change in attitude is already beginning to develop. Syrians’ beliefs about their “enemies” and “friends” have changed dramatically since Israel began treating them. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is utilizing chemical warfare against his own people, while their longtime enemy Israel is providing them with lifesaving medical treatment. Syrians will never forget this powerful symbol of humanity and generosity, which will have a lasting impact on the region.

Dr. Nir Boms of Tel Aviv University has been part of the civilian operation of caring for Syrian patients since the beginning of the conflict. He shared one story about a child named Mohammad who came to Israel at 4 years old, unable to walk. The child went through a long and complicated treatment – and when it was over, he could run and even play soccer. Mohammad sent a note to the hospital expressing thanks for his care. Boms said he remembers the experience well:

Here is a kid who is now 8 years old. I don’t know where he will be 20 years down the road and I don’t know where Syria will be 20 years down the road, but I like to hope and to share the hope that perhaps one day he will be back in Syria, a changed man. And perhaps he is the hope of the country. I don’t know how many children will return to Syria or live through the rest of the conflict, but as an Israeli – as a human being, as a Jew – we have to do the right thing. And the right thing means to act and do the little that we can for the sake of the people who are suffering and who are dying on the other side.

Countless relationships between Israelis and Syrians have formed thanks to the generosity of doctors, citizens and military personnel. The evil and suffering of the civil war in Syria is at times too much to comprehend, but stories of compassion, humility and love bring hope to the region. Conflict in the Middle East will undoubtedly continue for years to come, but if Syrians and Israelis can begin to think of each other not as enemies, but as friends, they together can advocate for peaceful and lasting solutions.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, May 11, 2017, and reposted with permission.