Why Wounded Syrians Keep Winding Up In Israeli Hospitals

'We wondered how we should react until they told us they'd been wounded by the regime forces and had nowhere else to go ...'

Injured Syrian girl treated at a hospital in Safed
Injured Syrian girl treated at a hospital in Safed
Cyrille Louis

SAFED — Ahmed never gets tired of the view from his hospital room. "It's so peaceful," he says, smiling, as he points to a tree-filled parking lot with a Star of David flag flapping at its center. For the past three months, this young Syrian's world was limited to the muted atmosphere of this room and its large window.

The only traces of his past life are a black woolen hat on his bed and a gym bag in a corner of the room. Wearing a blue and white hospital gown, the boy, just out of his teenage years, carefully combs his jet-black hair. He wears a trimmed beard, short around the chin and longer on the cheeks. "I'm not a jihadist," he quickly adds. "I'm a fighter with the Free Syrian Army."

Last summer, Ahmed and his comrades fought Bashar al-Assad's forces in the outskirts of Quneitra, not far from the old ceasefire line with Israel, when a bomb exploded nearby and tore off his right leg. "I lost consciousness a few moments later as I was being transported to a safer location," he says. When he awoke, he asked to be transferred to one of Israel's hospitals where 2,600 wounded Syrians have been treated since the spring of 2013. An unknown face told him, "You are in Israel."

"Nowhere else to go"

Colonel Alon Galsberg, a military doctor, probably would have rolled his eyes if anybody had told him five years ago that he would be spending most of his time coordinating the treatment of Syrian civilians and rebels hit by shrapnel or too sick to be taken care of in their home country. Having fought in 1948, 1967 and 1973, Israel and Syria are technically still at war although their shared border has seen a long period of calm.

Quneitra, Syria — Photo: Christian Koehn/GFDL

"Everything changed in the early afternoon of Feb. 16, 2013, when a patrol called us to report the presence of seven Syrians lying along the security fence," Galsberg says. "We wondered how we should react until they told us they'd been wounded by the regime forces and had nowhere else to go."

In the following weeks, this strange scenario repeated itself so often that the military chief of staff decided to set up a field hospital near the security fence in the Golan Heights. More than 430 Syrians were eventually treated there, until the army decided on June 13 to close it as it had become too visible. Since then, the castaways from the Syrian conflict have been directly transferred to hospitals in the Israeli cities of Safed, Nahariya, Tiberia and Haifa.

Ayman, 18, had never imagined he would wake up one day in an Israeli hospital. He says he defected from the regular Syrian army to join rebels four years ago and was severely injured by a land-mine explosion. "It was an accident," he mumbles without giving more detail, visibly still in shock.

Both his hands had to be amputated. "Since the war began, everybody knows somebody who's been treated by the Israelis," he says, sitting on his bed on the first floor of the hospital in Safed. "So when the guys from my squad saw the state I was in, they tried their best to bring me here."

Ayman now waits for the doctors to attach prostheses to his stumps. Meanwhile, he kills time reading the Koran and listening to the news about his country on a pocket radio the hospital lent him. His reflex to distrust Israelis, fueled by anti-Israeli propaganda he was exposed to as a child, has gradually abated. "At first, I was scared of everything. I thought the Israelis were going to torture me or poison me. I was brought up to think they were worse than the devil. Then I understood they were taking care of me better than doctors in my own country would have."

Do-good diplomacy

The Israeli army says it treats wounded Syrians purely on humanitarian grounds. "We don't ask them where they come from, who they fight or how they can be useful to us," says Galsberg.

It's possible that Israel draws some benefit from this engagement. There are rumors that the Israeli army established a separate communication channel with rebel factions on the Syrian slope of Golan that included jihadists from al-Nusra Front.

These contacts led to good "neighborly relations' that translate not only into preserving relative calm near the border but also keeping away the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The Syrian regime has routinely denounced Israel's actions and has accused it of supporting "terrorists."

Some Israeli leaders have called for an expansion of this cooperation, which until now has been done in secret, so as to "win the hearts' of the Syrian population and push their country's interests. "We could play an active part near the border to safeguard the region's control by moderate groups," says Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel's military intelligence and current executive director of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. Yadlin also says he wishes to see his country "get involved a lot more in providing humanitarian aid to the civilian population."

The treatment of the wounded has progressively gone from emergency improvisation to an organized process. The most severe cases are first driven to a Syrian hospital at a secret location before they are transferred toward the border, most often at night. "There was one day in September when we received 25 wounded in one go after the bombing of a health care center in Quneitra," says Galsberg, who had to gather 11 rescue teams and two helicopters at the time. Two young boys were severely burned and had to be transferred to a specialized service at the Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv.

Quneitra hospital — Photo: bertilvidet/GFDL

"Unlike the humanitarian interventions we take part in abroad, taking in these wounded people means we're mobilizing the resources of our own healthcare system, which therefore has an impact on its capacity to take in Israeli patients," says the military doctor. Since last summer, the army has been trying to expand treatment offered by organizing a bus transfer of Syrian patients whose lives aren't at risk, so they can be seen at the hospital in Safed.

"Several hundred civilians, especially children, were transported from the border and taken back the same evening," a senior military source says. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to go even further. "I've asked the foreign ministry to seek ways to expand our medical assistance to the civilian casualties of the Syrian tragedy, specifically in Aleppo, where we're prepared to take in wounded women and children and also men if they're not combatants," he said recently. "We'd like to do that: Bring them to Israel, take care of them in our hospitals."

Eager to return

One sunny December afternoon, six Syrian fighters convalesce in the hospital in Safed. All claim to be from the Free Syrian Army and say they reject terror group ISIS. In June 2015, the evacuation of fighters affiliated with al-Nusra angered the Druze minority from the Golan occupied by Israel, as they suspected the group of threatening their community in Syria. A few dozen of them attacked an ambulance transporting two wounded Syrians as it crossed the small town of Majdal Shams. One of the patients was lynched.

"I was injured fighting ISIS," says Mohammed, trying to quickly brush aside any suspicion that he colluded with jihadists. The 27-year-old bearded fighter who sports a blue tattoo on his left arm comes from Daraa. About a year ago, his friends persuaded him to join the rebellion. His right tibia, destroyed by a bomb in September, is encased in steel. "I can't wait to go back to my wife," he says, aware that his recovery will still take weeks.

"All the wounded who come here, whatever their condition, say they want to die in their country," says Fares Issa, a social worker assigned to Syrian patients.

"Israel is doing a lot to help us and we won't forget it," says Mohammed. But he also wants Israel to do more. "Why not give us weapons?" he asks.

In the next room, young Ahmed also struggles to hide his impatience. As soon as his condition allows it, the doctors have promised to put a prosthesis on his lower limbs. Then, he hopes to return to anti-Bashar rebel forces in Syria. "Take a picture of me," he says, laughing at precautions the hospital's staff take to keep the identities of Syrian patients secret. "What on earth would I have to hide? Of course, if ISIS or the regime find me, I'll be in for a rough time. So what? We're all fighting to the death anyway..."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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