Home > News > BBC: The victims of Syria’s war finding care in Israel
26 November, 2013
By Kevin Connolly – BBC Middle East correspondent, Tzfat
In the maternity unit at the Sieff Hospital in the Israeli city of Tzfat, the safe arrival of every baby feels like a minor miracle.
But on the day we visited, there was one little boy among the row of newborns who will one day have quite a story to tell. That is, if his parents ever decide to tell him.
The child’s name has to be withheld: publishing any kind of information which could identify him might put him in danger when he goes back to his home village – which is in Syria.
His mother’s name or any personal information that might identify her can’t be published either. She looked tired but happy when we met her, quick to praise the kindness of the Israeli medical staff who had treated her.
She was already in labour when she went to her local clinic in her home village in Syria – but they told her that they could not treat her.
Her worried husband knew that it was possible to get her treated in Israel – and so the couple began a dangerous race to the frontier in a country at war and a desperate race against time.
She had to be taken to a point inside Syria from where she could be seen by Israeli soldiers patrolling the fence that marks the old ceasefire line between the two countries that dates back decades.
A military ambulance then took her to hospital – she made it on time.
The humanitarian chain that got the woman from her home village under heavy shellfire to the boundary fence and then to hospital links guides in Syria to Israeli Army paramedics on the frontier, to the doctors and nurses in Tzfat.
For the woman, every step in the process worked perfectly, perhaps because it has become a well-trodden path.
She was the 177th person to make the journey to the emergency room in what has become one of the most extraordinary subplots of Syria’s agonising civil war.
Syria and Israel regard each other as enemies. A state of war has existed between them for decades.
And yet, since the first patients arrived around nine months ago, the informal system of patient transfer has become so well-established that some patients have even arrived with letters of referral written by doctors in Syria for their Israeli counterparts.
“I expect they will reflect on what was their experience here and that they will reflect differently on what the regime tells them about Israelis and Syrians being enemies”
Dr Oscar Embon, the director of the Sieff Hospital, says simply: “Some beautiful relationships have started between the staff at the hospital and the people that we treat. Most of them express their gratitude and their wish for peace between the two countries.”
The Israelis say they are treating everyone who needs treatment. That often means women and children but it is possible that among the young men who have been patched up, there may well be fighters loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or jihadist rebels who in other circumstances would attack Israeli targets if they could.
Dr Embon says that policy of not discriminating between the sick and the hurt is entirely consistent with what he sees as the values of his country and the ethics of his profession.
He told me: “I don’t expect them to become lovers of Israel and ambassadors for what we do here, but in the interim I expect they will reflect on what was their experience here and that they will reflect differently on what the regime tells them about Israelis and Syrians being enemies.”
Israel’s help for the Syrian patients is politically interesting, of course – this is the Middle East, after all.
But even if you only spend a few hours in the hospital at Tzfat, you get a sense that there are powerful human dramas being played out in the treatment room.
Most of the patients, though, won’t talk about what they have been through – they are too frightened about what would happen to them back in Syria if it emerged they had been to Israel.
At the centre of the system is an Israeli Arab social worker who asked us to refer to him only by his first name, Faris.
He calms the fears of disoriented patients who are shocked to find themselves suddenly being treated in an enemy state. He organises charity collections to provide them with toiletries and toothbrushes. And he listens to their stories.
The hospital treats any Syrian case – from pregnant women to injured rebel or government fighters
The job Faris does is tough at the best of times – imagine having to explain to a young boy blinded in an explosion that he will never see again – but with the Syrian patients, it feels even more difficult because they go home as soon as they have been treated.
And once they cross back onto the Syrian side of the boundary fence, all contact with them will be lost between the old enmities of the Middle East and the dangerous chaos of civil war.
Faris acknowledges that the regular partings from men, women and children he has helped through dark moments are tough for him as well as for them.
He looks tired when we meet but says he sleeps well knowing that he has been given a chance to do some good.
“When people come here for two months,” he told me, “a relationship starts between you and them and becomes stronger. Then they go home and the sad thing is you can’t be in contact with them because their villages are ‘enemy’ villages.”
Such is the grinding misery of Syria’s civil war, though – and the growing problems in the healthcare system there – that it seems every week will bring Faris and the medical staff at the hospital new patients and new problems.
The Syrians who go home cannot be too open about the help they have received in Israel – merely admitting having been here could put them in danger.
But somehow word is spreading and it seems likely that as long as the civil war goes on, the tide of injured seeking help will continue to rise.