Less than 160 km. 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 front line into
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
“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
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 paralyzed in both legs, lies stone-faced as
an Israeli hospital clown juggles and dances, trying in vain to raise a
For the past month, she has been at Western Galilee Hospital in
Nahariya, on the Mediterranean coast, about 80 km. west of the UN-monitored
cease-fire line on the Golan Heights that has kept Israeli and Syrian forces
apart since 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
“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.”
declined to say exactly how she and her daughter reached the Israeli lines on
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
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 at war. But it does provide medical care, and it has
made no secret of doing so.
The Nahariya hospital has treated more than
80 Syrians 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.
military observers based along the 75-km. cease-fire line did not respond to
calls seeking comment.
The Israeli army has set up a field hospital on a
mountain ridge that overlooks a cluster of Syrian villages on the
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.
transported to hospitals in Israel.
“We don’t know how they come in,”
said Shukri Kassis, a doctor at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, 40 km. from the
Syrian front line. “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 government declines to give a total figure
for how many have been treated in Israeli 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
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
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
He was shot in a battle with Assad’s forces a few weeks
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.
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.”
International Red Cross visits patients and offers assistance in contacting
Some patients say they have sent word back home.
fear that any message revealing their whereabouts would endanger their
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.
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-Qaida. 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.
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.
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
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 color, no
nationality,” said Oscar Embon, director-general of Ziv Medical Center. “You
treat each and every person and I am proud that we are able to do this.”