The peak of Mount Bental in Israel’s Golan Heights overlooks Syria, where 5 years of civil war produced levels of brutal death and destruction reporters refer to as “hell on earth.”
We were a group of journalists being briefed by a medical officer. Lt. Col. Tomer Koler began our orientation at Israel’s eastern border by pointing off to the right. “Over there, to the south, is territory controlled by ISIS,” Dr. Koler explained, “Ahead of us, to the East, is al Qaeda controlled, and there,” he said pointing left, “in the north is Assad and Hezbollah.”
All were in walking distance from where we stood.
Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, indeed.
The media is focused on Jerusalem at this moment. Its limited attention span has been overwhelmed by the prolonged and complicated story of Syria’s misery. Brutalized by its own cruel leadership, with the help of Iran, Russia, and a variety of rebel and terrorist groups, Syria has become a shell of its former self. In 2016, the United Nations reported that from an estimated pre-war population of 22 million, there were 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance.
Hospitals and health care personnel have been so effectively targeted in this war that Johns Hopkins University declared Syria “the most dangerous country in the world for doctors.” As usual, most members of the “international community” have not done much to help.
But one country is helping: Israel. Although Syria has long been a mortal enemy of Israel and the two countries have no official relationship whatsoever, each week Israel admits wounded and sick Syrians for medical, hospital and rehabilitative care.
The story began back in 2013, when an Israeli border patrol saw a civilian car hit by rocket fire. They went to investigate and found a family - parents and several children - gravely wounded, but alive. The paramedic on the team could only do so much; their injuries required hospitalization, and there was no functioning Syrian hospital close enough to help. When the Israeli soldiers reported the situation up their chain of command, they were told to bring the family into Israel for medical treatment.
The wounded civilians were terrified. They had always been told that Israel was the devil. They were shocked to see the enemy dealing with them without guns.
That’s how it began. And that’s how it continues.
To date, 4,000 Syrians have been treated in Israel. One of the receiving hospitals, Ziv Medical Center in Safed, has treated more than 1,000 wounded Syrians, 70 percent of whom had severe orthopedic injuries caused by barrel bombs and grenades, gunshot, and the many means of destruction devised by human ingenuity.
Seventeen percent of the injured have been children.
War-wounded are not the only recipients of Israeli medical care. With translation help provided by the hospital social worker, Fares Issa, an Israeli Arab Christian (The hospital’s diverse staff and patient population include Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bedouins and Circassians), we spoke with three male patients. Two had combat-type orthopedic injuries, and one was a 55-year-old suffering from complications of diabetes.
Israeli medical assistance to Syrians expanded to include routine pediatric care. Every week busloads of children and their mothers are brought in for outpatient health care visits, and bused back to Syria the same day.
In 2016, an airstrike hit the only maternity hospital operating in northern Syria, as part of the campaign targeting health care facilities. That left the only operating maternity hospital 70 miles away to the south, over dangerous roads. Syrian doctors appealed to Israel for help and “Operation Good Neighbor,” as it is now called, responded.
The new maternity hospital is open and functioning. All the equipment – beds, incubators, ultrasound – was donated by Israel, and the hospital is staffed by Syrian doctors.
Syrian winters are cold. Israel has donated warm clothing, fuel and food to the nearby villages as part of Operation Good Neighbor. They do all this without entering Syrian territory. They open a border gate, which is a military operation, put the supplies down and close the gate. Someone on the other side comes to collect it.
That’s what caring for the enemy means.
The Israel Defense Forces and civilian health care workers involved in this work hope their kindness will increase the chances for peace with Syria. But even if it doesn’t, they believe that helping the sick and wounded is the right thing to do.
When asked by a skeptical German journalist in the group, “Why do you do it? What’s in it for you?” Dr. Koler answered, “It’s my job. Besides, I must help them. My religion tells me that I may not stand by while people lie injured and suffering every day. My religion says I must help.”