Syrian war prompts unusual cultural exchange with Israel

At war since 1967, Israelis and Syrians rarely interact. But with wounded Syrians seeking treatment in Israel, a rare opportunity for chatter has emerged.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Nitai Ben Yosef is in charge of the mobile intensive care unit on an Israeli army base near the Syrian border.

Nitai Ben Yosef was on duty as a paramedic at this Israeli army base this winter when eight wounded Syrians approached the border.

Among them was a 5-year-old girl with severe head injuries and her 10-year-old sister, who had been badly burned. He cared for them alone in the back of an ambulance as it made its way 1.5 hours across northern Israel to a hospital in Nahariyya, on the Mediterranean coast.

The girls were unnervingly quiet.

“In trauma, screaming children are the good ones because you know they’re conscious and breathing,” says Mr. Ben Yosef, who at 21 is in charge of the base’s mobile intensive care unit.

It’s a trip that Ben Yosef, whose base is only three miles from Syria, has made frequently as a key actor in the Israeli army’s rescue of more than 900 critically wounded Syrians since March 2013. His role has given him a window into the brutal violence of the civil war next door, as well as the lives of Syrian peers he would otherwise never meet.

Israel and Syria have technically been at war since 1967, and the Quneitra border crossing is closed to everyone but United Nations personnel. Even they were banned from using it this week as fighting between rebels and Syrian army forces heated up nearby. 
According to a paper coauthored by Israeli security analyst Ehud Yaari earlier this month for the Washington Institute, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, Abdullah al-Bashir, is among those who have been treated by Israel. He also speculated that it's likely that Israel's coordination with Syrians on the other side of the border is not limited to rescuing and repatriating wounded Syrians. 
"One would not be incorrect in assuming that Israel has a system of coordination and cooperation with at least some rebel militias," he wrote.

'Talking' via Google translate

On one ride from the hospital back to the border to return an 18-year-old after he was treated, Ben Yosef got into a conversation of sorts with the teenager. Equipped with Google translate and an iPhone with Arabic and Hebrew keyboards, they tapped out questions and answers for each other. 

"Do you have electricity? Water? What is your daily routine?" asked Ben Yosef, who, like all Israelis, is barred from entering Syria. Due to the ongoing fighting, the Syrian teen told Ben Yosef, he hadn’t attended school for two years. He mostly passes the day with his family, eating, sleeping, and listening to missiles.

According to Ben Yosef and other Israelis who have dealt with wounded Syrians, the atypical visitors are often surprised at what they experience in Israel.

“I’ve talked to some Syrians we brought back, and they told me that they taught them in their village that Israel is the devil, that we’re here to kill them, that’s all we want to do. We’re inhuman,” says Ben Yosef.

The state of war between the two countries always looms, even during rescue. When the wounded are carried to the border, many on bed mattresses or doors, the first concern is security.

“Before we start to take care of them, we have to check for weapons,” says Ben Yosef, recalling a grenade that fell out of a patient’s bed at an Israeli hospital seven to eight months ago. “We cut all their clothes off, and cover them with heat blankets.”

In the fall, his tour will be up, and he says he’s looking forward to continuing his profession in a civilian environment where he won’t regularly encounter shrapnel, grenades, and missile injuries. But overall, he’s enjoying the work.

“I love it, it’s what I do,” he says. “It’s fulfilling. The good outweighs the bad, the people who have died.”

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