SAFED — Two unarmed UN peacekeepers stand beside a rusty telescope observing the Syrian border from the Golan Heights on the Israeli side of the 1974 ceasefire line. The air is cold and wintery. Nearby, in the Coffee Anan store (anan, meaning cloud in Hebrew), an Israeli intelligence officer points down towards the bottom of the valley. "Today is calm," he says, "but it's down there that the fighting takes place."
The fighting he refers to is the Syrian Civil War between Assad loyalists and rebels, which include the lay Free Syrian Army and the Islamist al-Nusra Front, the local branch of al-Qaeda. The Israelis have no doubt that the border is now in the hands of al-Nusra and that Golan is therefore more vulernable to al-Qaeda's infiltration. "We do not know how many are there," he adds.
Nor is it possible to know how many are being killed and wounded. What is clear is that some of the injured rebels have managed to cross into Golan — enemy territory — and receive treatment in Israeli hospitals. This cross-border cooperation was noted earlier this week in a UN report but appears to have been going on for some time now.
At the Ziv Medical Center in Safed, 30 kilometers away from the Syrian border and just a dozen from the Lebanese one, "the Syrians have been coming" for months already. Deputy Director Calin Sharpira, whose impeccable Italian was learnt studying medicine in Bologna, says that more than 400 wounded Syrians have come since February 2013. Approximately 30 of them were children. "There's no end in sight yet," he says.
Militants, rebels, people waging war against the regime. The doctors at Ziv don't ask any questions. They just operate, trying to avoid amputations and treat their patients. Then they send them back across the border in a top secret procedure. Right now the hospital is treating 12 Syrians.
La Stampa met them in their room, their beds in a row, blankets covering their swollen legs. "We want to go back to Syria," says one of the rebels. Their families are there, along with their homes, or what remains of them. Their challenge is ongoing as well. "We will return to fight Assad," the rebels add.
The Syrians grew up with the idea that Israel is the Zionist enemy that must be overcome. Finding themselves being treated by Jewish doctors is a shock. Four of the patients, who range between 20 and 35 years old, nod and laugh when Fares Issa, a Maronite Christian who acts as a "liaison officer" between the Syrians and the doctors, tells an anecdote. He asks one of the patients what he will do when he goes back to Syria, and the patient responds that he will fight Assad. What about when the war is over? Fight Israel.
The cries for help to Israel come directly from the Syrian people, in the form of a phone call or a message to signal that there has been an injury. The hospital alerts the army. The wounded are brought to the border and Israeli soldiers take over. No questions asked, the ambulance leaves quickly. It can take the wounded up to five hours to reach their destination, often in desperate conditions. "They are resistant to antibiotics," says Dr. Shapira.
"But do they belong to al-Qaeda?" we ask. "They are sick and we are doctors. We don't ask these kinds of questions."