'A small stone in building peace': Syrians treated by Israeli medics

Doctors, nurses and soldiers in Israel are reaching out to help treat Syria's war wounded, even though Israel and Syria are still at war, reports the CBC's Derek Stoffel.

More than 2,600 Syrians injured in civil war there have been medically treated in Israel

Israeli army medics tend to an injured Syrian in the occupied Golan Heights. (IDF)

Lying in a hospital bed, Mohammed al-Souria offers a big "thumbs-up" gesture when he's asked for his opinion of Israel.

"It's good," he says with a broad smile. Which may surprise, given that Souria was born and raised in Syria, where all through his time at school and later in the country's army, he was taught that Israel was his enemy.

What changed his mind?

Israel's army opened up the border gates in the Golan Heights four months ago, and transported Souria to a hospital in northern Israel to treat a serious leg wound he suffered while fighting with the Free Syrian Army against regime forces. 

'Better than Bashar al-Assad'

"When the doctors [in Syria] saw me and my wounds, they told me immediately they wanted to amputate my leg. So my friends told me, 'no, go to Israel,'" said Souria, using a nom de guerre, as the 28-year-old wishes to remain anonymous when he returns home. 

Mohammed al-Souria has received treatment for a leg injury at Israel's Ziv hospital for the past four months. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Souria is one of approximately 2,600 Syrians who have been treated in Israel since the country began offering medical assistance to those wounded in the country's civil war 3½ years ago.

"They used to tell us the only enemy of Syria was Israel," Souria told CBC News. "But when we came here and we saw the treatment, everything … everything we were told has changed. And now Israel is 100 times better than [Syria's president] Bashar al-Assad in the way they treat humans."

Often, little is known about the Syrians who are brought into Israel for treatment. Medical officials say the vast majority are young men, which likely means most were wounded while fighting in the civil war.

"As a result of the civil war, the IDF maintains a humanitarian effort guided by sanctity of human life," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman with the Israel Defence Forces, in a statement.

"The humanitarian efforts are focused in providing medical aid to the Syrians in need. When our forces see men, women and children in need, they see it as their moral obligation and professional responsibility to lend a helping hand."

In addition to protecting Israeli communities in the Golan from attacks from the Syrian side, Israel's army is also given the task of transporting the wounded from Syria to several hospitals in Israel.

Young men, most likely fighters

"My company deals with securing the transfer: to accept them, check to make sure they are unarmed, no explosives or anything that can threaten us," said Capt. Guy Yuval, a company commander with the IDF.

"Then we take them in over the border and hand them over to get medical treatment in hospitals in the north of Israel."

Capt. Guy Yuval, a company commander with the Israel Defence Forces, stands at a small army base in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on the frontier with Syria. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed the region in 1981, in a move not recognized internationally. The two nations are still technically at war.

The IDF operates a small field hospital in the Golan Heights where patients are given a primary assessment before being moved for urgent care.

Many women and children also have received medical treatment, and a number of Syrian babies have been delivered in Israeli maternity wards. 

A regular clinic is in operation now at Ziv hospital, in the northern Israeli city of Safed, where doctors and nurses treat illnesses and injuries not related to the conflict. They also provide children with immunizations not available at home due to the deterioration of health care services.

Israel looks to expand program

The facility in Ziv has treated more than 700 Syrians since February, 2013. The hospital's chief orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Alexander Lerner, estimates the average cost to Israel's publicly funded health care system of treating a patient is $20,000.

While some Israelis might be unhappy at that cost, Lerner said he and his fellow doctors have the responsibility to treat the wounded, no matter where they come from.

"As doctors, you can look at people … [everyone has the] absolute similar colour of blood. It's bleeding people, suffering people, and if I can help, I must help," he said after finishing a recent surgery on a man wounded in Syria.

Dr. Alexander Lerner, chief orthopedic surgeon at Ziv hospital, has treated many Syrians injured in Syria's long civil war. (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

In his office at the hospital, Lerner said he keeps a drawing done by a young Syrian girl he treated. "Thank you doctor. I love you," the girl wrote.

"I think it's the best present," he said.

Lerner said he knows that the Syrians, when they return home, tell friends and relatives about the treatment they have received in Israel. And he believes that will make a difference.

"Maybe it's a small piece, a small stone in building of peace here in this area," he said. "Because it's enough of this war, and of our blood."

With the war in Syria showing no sign of ending, Israel's prime minister said his government wants to offer medical assistance to even more Syrians. 

"We see the tragedy, the terrible suffering of civilians, and I've asked the Foreign Ministry to seek ways to expand our medical assistance to the civilian casualties of the Syrian tragedy, specifically in Aleppo where we're prepared to take in wounded women and children and also men if they're not combatants," prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign journalists in Jerusalem.

"We'd like to do that, bring them to Israel, take care of them in our hospitals, as we've done with thousands of Syrian civilians." 

Israel makes peace with Syria, one patient at a time


5 years ago
More than 2,600 Syrians injured in civil war there have been medically treated in Israel 2:17


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.