Syrian wounded flee to hospitals in Israel: Derek Stoffel

Although Syria and Israel have officially been at war since 1948, Israel has quietly offered state-of-the-art medical treatment to hundreds of Syrians wounded in the civil war in the past 13 months, writes Derek Stoffel.

Syria and Israel have been at war since 1948, but Israeli hospitals offering care

"Nasser," a Syrian patient, was brought to Ziv Hospital in the northern Israeli community of Safad last September for treatment he couldn't get at home after being involved in a car accident near the Syrian city of Dera’a. He is hiding his face because he is fearful of being mistreated when he returns to Syria for having been inside Israel. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

When Yousef was knocked down by what he describes as a powerful explosion in the small Syrian town he calls home, the injury was bad. His back was torn open, he was bleeding.

But three years of brutal civil war meant Yousef’s options for medical treatment were dire, at best. There were no doctors or nurses in the village to help. He couldn’t be taken to a hospital in a larger centre, because he’s on the wrong side of the conflict.

So, members of the Free Syrian Army got in touch with the enemy. Not Syrian forces, the other enemy: Israel.

They arranged his transfer over the long-contested border in the Golan Heights, and Yousef was brought to the Ziv Hospital in the northern Israeli community of Safad. (Every Syrian patient I spoke to at the hospital requested the use of their first names only, out of fear of attack upon their return to Syria.)

Dr. Amer Hussein (left), head of Emergency Medicine at Ziv Hospital, is an Israeli-Arab who speaks Arabic. He says some of his Syrian patients are shocked to find someone who speaks their language offering them treatment in Israel. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)
​Yousef arrived in Israel suffering not only from severe injuries to his back, but also a life-threatening stomach infection contracted while he was offered stabilizing medical treatment in Syria. His condition was grave.

But more than two weeks later, his prognosis has improved. 

Yousef occupies one of the two beds reserved for Syrians in the Intensive Care Unit at Ziv Hospital. When I first arrived, he was sleeping. Medical monitors beeped as he slumbered.

When he woke up, I asked Yousef if he knew where he was.

“No,” he told me, groggy from the pain medication he’s on. He denied knowing he was in Israel three times.

Syria and Israel have officially been at war since 1948. Syrians are surrounded by state propaganda, taught to hate Israel and blame the Jewish state for all that is wrong in their country.

But Israel has quietly offered state-of-the-art medical treatment to more than 700 Syrians in the past 13 months, at a cost of about $20 million, according to documents obtained by the Jerusalem Post. Several Syrian babies have also been delivered in Israel.

Israel and Syria are officially at war, and the rooms at Ziv Hospital where most of the Syrian patients are treated are guarded by members of the IDF (right), Israel's army. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)
Most of the patients are believed to have been civilians, though Ziv Hospital staff say many of the men treated are rebel fighters. When I ask Yousef if he’s with the Free Syrian Army, he denies it, but one nurse says he has privately confided this fact to hospital staff. 

Two hundred and forty one Syrians have been treated at Ziv Hospital. Others have been taken to medical centres in various northern communities, while the Israel Defence Forces have operated a field hospital offering medical care to Syrians, though it’s believed that facility is currently closed.

“I think this is [a] bridge for peace,” said Dr. Amer Hussein, the chief of emergency medicine at Ziv Hospital. 

Dr. Hussein is an Israeli-Arab who speaks Arabic. He admits that some of his Syrian patients are shocked to find someone who speaks their language offering them treatment in Israel.

“At the beginning [the patients] were very surprised and stressed. But now they heard about this and they don’t stress.”

Nasser, another patient, was brought to Ziv Hospital last September after being involved in a car accident near the Syrian city of Dera’a, not too far from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. His situation was similar to Yousef’s: no medical staff nearby and he was unable to seek treatment in the local hospital, which is controlled by the Syrian regime.

So Nasser was brought to Israel, where he’s had several operations to treat a severe injury to his left leg.

“If I were to have stayed in Syria, I would have died. Or the war would have killed me. I came here, taking a risk, but in Israel there’s a chance to get treatment. And thank God that’s what happened,” he said from his hospital bed.

Sheltering Syrians

Nasser’s road to recovery remains long, but he does worry about going home. He’s heard the stories of Syrians who have been attacked for seeking treatment in Israel. Yet, he does want to go back to his village. 

Foad Hanna (right), the head nurse at Ziv Hospital’s ICU, says it's difficult to say goodbye to Syrian patients he has treated, knowing the conditions in the war zone they're returning to. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)
“I want to see my family. I want to see my friends. And I want to be on my land.”

There are some who think Israel has an obligation to protect those Syrians who do not want to return, while the civil war continues unabated. More than 140,000 Syrians have died in nearly three years of fighting.

The organization Physicians for Human Rights - Israel has recently taken up the cause of those Syrians receiving treatment in Israel.

The group’s director of public outreach, Hadas Ziv, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that a system should be developed “that would ensure every injured Syrian receive a meeting with a representative of the Red Cross or the UN refugee agency, and that each and every patient be informed of the possibility of remaining in Israel as an asylum seeker.”

Foad Hanna, the head nurse at Ziv Hospital’s ICU, says the patients treated in Israel should, at least, be given more options. “When I say goodbye to people, I always think of the war zone they’re going back to. And that is hard for me.”

Yousef tells me he wants to go back to Syria when he is well enough. “I have a family to take care of.”

Years of being taught that Israel is the enemy may have made it hard for him to acknowledge where he is being treated, but when I ask him about the doctors and nurses at Ziv Hospital, he manages a small smile.

“I am getting the best medical treatment here. [To the medical staff] I say thank you and God will reward you for helping me.”

About the Author

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.


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