We waited on the Israeli-Syrian border surrounded by minefields, with only the stars in the early morning sky as light. Suddenly lights appeared on the Syrian side, and they kept coming closer.
“Habibi!” cried a voice in the darkness.
“Habibi!” the Israeli soldier next to us responded, as other IDF troops opened the gate to the enemy country.
On the other side stood some 50 Syrians – 23 children and their mothers – waiting to cross into Israel and receive free medical care as part of Israel’s Operation Good Neighbor.
Slowly they emerged. Mothers carrying their children who were unable to walk, other children bundled up in their winter clothes holding their mothers hands tightly as they crossed into Israel.
Major Dr. Sergei Kotikov, one of the senior IDF officers involved in the operation, told The Jerusalem Post
that this is a scene that repeats itself on a weekly basis. He should know – he has taken part in 51 such operations bringing injured and sick Syrian children into Israel.
“The Syrian war came to a point where people started showing up on our border looking for help. They had no trust and could not rely on their government, instead turning to a country which for 50 years they were told was the enemy,” Kotikov said as we walked to the border fence earlier that morning.
While Israel has largely stayed out of the fighting on its northern border, the IDF launched Operation Good Neighbors in June 2016, with the goal of increasing aid given to Syrian civilians while maintaining the principle of non-involvement in the Syrian civil war.
The operation has involved the provision of food, clothing, fuel, diapers and hospital equipment, but the IDF has been treating wounded and sick Syrians since 2013. It is a central part of Operation Good Neighbor, with close to 4,000 Syrians having been brought into Israel to receive medical treatment.
Last year Syrian women gave birth to nine babies in the Galilee Medical Center.
Two gave birth in Israel in the last two months alone.
According to Maj. Kotikov the IDF realized that Israel also needs to provide follow up visits for these children, especially those who
have chronic illnesses.
“Once a week a busload of sick children come into Israel,” he said, adding that he is in contact with Syrian doctors across the border who triage the injured to determine what sort of medical care they need.
“It is without a doubt a warm relationship with the other side,” he said ,as the Syrians passed one by one through a metal detector and had other security checks, stressing nevertheless that “this is a military operation for all intents and purposes.”
THOSE WHO ARRIVE at the Syria-Israel border are both combatants and civilians, and according to officials some 70% of the wounded treated by Israel are men of fighting age while the other 30% are women and children.
Most are transported by ambulance to Nahariya’s Galilee Medical Center (70%) or Ziv Medical Center in Safed (20%); others are treated in hospitals in the center of the country such as Sheba Medical Center.
According to Sharon Mann, International Liaison official at Galilee Medical Center's Department of International Affairs, over 2,200 injured Syrians have been treated at the hospital since 2013, 40% of them women and children under the age of 18.
“We are not the closest hospital to Syria but we have the most advanced treatment available. We are seeing the most serious and complicated cases, including ballistic injuries,” she said, explaining that one patient, a 29 year-old man missing half of his face, stayed in the hospital for over a year for facial reconstruction surgery.
“We are also seeing a lot of children who were injured after being hit by snipers,” she said.
According to Maj. Kotikov, there have been peaks where more children have been injured due to fighting. More children have entered in the past month than in the six previous months, he said.
Dr. Leonid Kogan, head of plastic surgery and burns at the Nahariya hospital, has treated hundreds of injured Syrians since 2013.
“It was weird at first that there would be Syrians coming here because of the relations between our countries,” he told the Post
about the first patient he treated. “But we never had any issues treating them.
They were very afraid at the beginning – they didn’t really believe that they were here, in Israel.”
“In 2013 we were seeing a lot more acute, trauma injuries,” he said, adding that now most patients are coming with chronic illness or complications.
While none of the children the Post
spoke to were injured from fighting, many of them have not had adequate medical care because of the disastrous civil war which has been raging in Syria for the past six years and has destroyed much of the infrastructure in the country.
MANY OF THE CHILDREN who entered Israel on that cold dark winter’s night were children too young to speak, but 14 year old Jumani waved us over, eager to share his story.
Jumani explained through a translator that he had been hit by a car six years earlier and was suffering from a ruptured tendon in his leg, an injury that recently had been causing him excruciating pain because he had never received proper medical treatment.
“I was not afraid to come to Israel – and when I entered and saw the soldiers with their guns I was not afraid either,” he said with a large smile on his face. He explained that he asked for permission to enter Israel less than a month ago, sure that Israeli doctors would be able to help him.
“Everyone who comes here only has good things to say about the treatment they receive,” said Jumani’s mother, who refused to be identified due the risks she and her family face if it is found out that she came to Israel.
Another Syrian mother echoed her comments, saying that she had heard from her neighbors that Israel was helping sick children. Originally from the Yarmouk area in the Syrian capital of Damascus, she fled with her nine children to southern Syria to get away from the fighting.
“It is my first time in Israel,” she said, explaining that she asked for permission for her son, who suffers from problems in his joints, to be seen by Israeli physicians.
“All I want is for my son to get the right treatment.”
“I used to see Israel as an occupying power,” she told the Post
as we waited for a doctor to call her son’s name. “But not anymore – my whole opinion of Israel has changed.”
One Syrian doctor who accompanied the sick kids and their mothers to the hospital in Nahariya told the Post
that he has been doing this for the past eight months.
“I was first approached by another doctor in Syria to take part in this project, and initially I said no. It wasn’t because of politics, it’s just that I had no time,” he said, adding that it took some convincing but in the end he does not regret the decision he made.
“I was afraid at first to come into Israel,” he said. “It was different, and it was scary because of what I learned about this country as I was growing up. But not anymore.”
“A lot of doctors are afraid to join because of the risks of being found out. But my name is already out there, people know what I am doing. I am stuck between helping these children and losing my own life. But I will continue to help.”