Enemies? No, patients, say Israeli doctors treating Syrians

In the last year, more than 220 Syrians have been treated at Israel’s expense at the Nahariya hospital.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Dr. Yoav Hoffman of the Western Galilee Hospital, says he's treated a number of Syrian children who appear to have been intentionally shot in the spine by a sniper.
Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Dr. Tsvi Sheleg, assistant director general of the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, Israel, says it is a 'very emotional' experience to be able to help wounded Syrians.

The West Galilee Hospital in Nahariya is no stranger to war. Located only six miles south of the Lebanese border, it took a direct missile hit during the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. But the Syrian war has pervaded these halls and wards in a much more personal way: through wounded Syrians, who are picked up at the border and brought here by the Israeli military for free treatment

Since the first two Syrian patients arrived nearly a year ago, the hospital has treated more than 220 Syrians, out of around 600 who have been brought to Israel. About a third of those treated in Nahariya have been children, some of whom arrived unconscious or unaccompanied by a relative.

“Something explodes and next thing, they open their eyes in a foreign country, and everyone is speaking Hebrew,” says Dr. Tsvi Sheleg, the hospital’s assistant director general. “They are in an enemy country – that’s how they see it.”

Israel has a tradition of offering humanitarian assistance in war zones and natural disasters around the world, even where it is not particularly welcome. But treating Syrians, whose country is still officially at war with Israel, is not only a logistical miracle but an extraordinary exercise in humanity trumping hate.

"It's important as a human being to be able to help others as a human being. I thank my government … that gives us the opportunity to help each other," says Director-General Masad Barhoum, who oversees the government hospital. "They are human beings. I don't believe that anyone in this hospital believes they are enemies."

The Syrian patients generally come to a similar conclusion.

“At first they were frightened ... they thought we would harm them and torture them,” says Yoav Hoffman, senior physician in the pediatric intensive care unit, which has treated about 25 children, ranging in age from a few months to 17 years old. “Then after a few days they understood what we were doing and they didn't want to leave.”

Hospital staff don’t know whether they’re treating civilians or soldiers, and they say they’re not sure whether the Israeli army knows either. Some patients offer their own accounts, though there is no way of verifying them.

Dr. Jean Sustiel in the neurosurgery department says one man claimed he had been a bodyguard of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but decided to switch sides and fight with the rebels. But his fellow rebels began to suspect him of being an Assad spy and shot and wounded him.

“He didn’t want to go back because he was wanted by both sides,” says Dr. Sustiel. “So he wanted to be transferred back to Jordan.”

The doctors say they know little to nothing about how the Syrian patients are picked up and transferred back to the border, a process that is handled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). But there appears to be significant cross-border communication involved, potentially mediated by United Nations forces stationed along the border, especially since doctors say some children arrived alone and the IDF was able to track down a relative and bring them to the hospital within a short time.

Some analysts have speculated that such channels of communication may also be helping Israel to keep the more extremist jihadi and salafi groups in Syria away from its border.

But for doctors at the West Galilee Hospital, the mission is detached from geopolitics. 

In Dr. Hoffman’s unit, a 3-year-old girl stands quivering on a table as her father embraces her. Both were injured in what he says was a cluster-bomb attack in Deraa, the southern city roughly 25 miles from Israel where the uprising began three years ago. He breaks down in tears as he tells of the attack, in which the girl’s twin brother was killed, but manages to add, “The treatment here is really excellent.”

But the doctors and staff say it’s not just about offering medical care. They also bring clothes, toys, and games from their own homes to give to the Syrian patients, including dolls and teddy bears for the children. One girl wanted so badly to see the Mediterranean Sea that the hospital worked with the Israeli military to bring her west to the beach before heading back east to the border. 

The hospital’s willingness to help has brought in heartfelt letters and donations from Muslims in Israel and the US. One mosque in nearby Acre sent $1,000 collected during prayers, and individual American Muslims have written to thank the hospital for helping when Arab countries have done so little, says Amir Yarchi of Friends of the Western Galilee Hospital, who heads up fundraising efforts.

“When you think about the extent of casualties in Syria … we are dealing with one drop in the ocean,” says Sustiel. “But there is an old Jewish saying – when you have saved one soul you have saved an entire world, so this is what we hope we are doing.”

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