On Feb. 16, 2013 Israeli ambulances brought wounded Syrians into an emergency room in Ziv Medical Center. In the two-and-a-half years since, more than 2,000 wounded Syrians have been admitted into a number of different Israeli hospitals.
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, more than 150,000 have been killed, 20 percent of whom are believed to be children. According to the New York Times, the imprecise rockets and bombs have led to an increasingly high number of civilian casualties. What’s even worse is that since the beginning of the war, the medical care in Syria has deteriorated and is even nonexistent in many places.
Because of this, many Syrians have decided to seek treatment in Jordan or Israel. The arrival of wounded Syrians seeking treatment in Israel is very surprising for many Israelis, because Syria is an enemy of Israel and the two have gone to war with each other multiple times.
Many of the wounded Syrians have expressed fear upon first arriving in Israel. Dr. Zonis Zeev, head of the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit in the Western Galilee Medical Centre, explained the situation of the Syrian patients in a 2013 video filmed by the Associated Press: “They arrive alone. They don’t understand the language. If they are old enough, probably at some time they were told about the animals on the other side of the border, us, like the Zionists or the Jews. What do they do to the kids or to people, so they are terrified and we have to treat the anxiety, not less than treating the physical part? Sometimes it is much harder.”
Even though most Syrians have been taught to see Israel in a bad light, for many, it is still preferable to getting medical treatment in Jordan. This is because in much of Syria, despite anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, Israel has become well known for its world-class medical care. In fact, some Syrians go to Israel for surgery after undergoing a number of failed surgeries in Jordan.
Stories of “miracles” performed by Israeli doctors have led some to believe that they can rehabilitate anyone. Because of this, even individuals suffering from incurable illnesses, such as terminal cancer or genetic diseases, come to Israel.
A large number of those treated, however, are not civilians but actually Syrian rebels. Israel has a “no questions” policy, meaning patients are never asked whether they are affiliated with any rebel group. Because of this, it is publicly unknown just how many of those treated in Israel are militants and how many are civilians.
The treatment of Syrian rebels has caused a lot of tension in the Israeli Druze community. Israeli Druze have a strong connection to the Druze population in Syria, which has largely remained loyal to the Assad regime and therefore in opposition of any rebel groups. In the past couple of years, certain rebel groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, have attacked and threatened Druze villages. However. most rebel groups are completely against any violence toward Syrian Druze, even though the Druze side themselves with the regime.
Even so, many Israeli Druze are rightfully worried about the safety of their brethren in Syria and therefore are angered that Israel is treating Syrian rebels. Emotions have run so high that on Jun. 22, 2015, a mob of Israeli Druze attacked an ambulance that was carrying two individuals, believed to be injured Syrian rebels, to an Israeli hospital. This resulted in the death of one of the patients and the near-death of the second. Since then, Israeli leaders have worked hard to cool tensions and have promised to not provide care to members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is considered an extremist militia and recently killed 20 Syrian Druze. But it can be difficult to identify someone’s affiliation if the person is unconscious.
Some Israelis have asked why they should expend millions of dollars to help the Syrians, knowing that if the tables were switched, the Syrians would likely not do the same. Furthermore, others wonder why they should help people who could, one day, turn around and fight for Israel’s destruction.
Part of the answer to this is that humanitarian aid is simply part of Israel’s DNA. In the past 54 years, Israel has provided humanitarian aid to more than 140 countries, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This has included travel to developing countries all around the world to help treat and prevent diseases. In addition, since the 1980s, Israel has deployed 15 different aid missions to countries that have experienced natural disasters and were in need of emergency relief. For example, Israel was the first country to have a fully-operating hospital in Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010. It simply does not make sense to fly around the world treating injured civilians but to neglect those right at the doorstep, even if many of them have ill feelings toward Israel.
In addition, by treating all these individuals, it is possible that stories of humanitarianism can help better Syrians’ attitudes toward Israel. A more positive Syrian perspective of Israel could help decrease the chances of a future war.
As Oscar Embon, director general of the Ziv Medical Center in Safed, summarized the Israeli medical outlook on the treatment of wounded Syrians in a 2013 press statement, “In medicine there are no borders, no color, no nationality. You treat each and every person and I am proud that we are able to do this.”