Injured Syrians aided by Israel

Israeli hospital treats injured Syrians

A hospital in northern Israel is treating victims of the Syrian war. The cross-border operation is risky – both countries are officially in a state of war.

An Israeli medical staff tends to a Syrian youth, who was wounded in the ongoing violence in Syria, as he lies on a hospital bed during his treatment at Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Safed on August 28 2013. Dozens of Syrians have been taken across the border in the Golan Heights for treatment in Israeli facilities since the outbreak of violence in the Jewish state's northern neighbor. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Shokri Kassis puts a calming hand on the shoulder of his young patient and addresses the 15-year-old boy in Arabic. The teenager is restless, his expression frozen, sometimes he groans – the surgeon doesn’t know whether in pain or fear.

The young Syrian has been lying in the intensive care ward of Ziv Hospital in northern Israel for a few days now. “He is still fairly confused and unresponsive,” says Kassis. But the Israeli doctor is confident the boy will make it, despite his severe abdominal injuries and brain trauma, caused by a bomb explosion. “But he will stay with us for a long while yet. It will take a lot of time.”

The newly built Israeli border fence, is seen from the Israeli side of the Syrian annexed Golan Heights near Tel Fares, on June 9, 2013. Israel is renewing the 60 kilometer border fence, 45 kilometer of which was already finished, and which is expected to be completed by the end of 2013. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images) There is an Israeli military field hospital somewhere on the Golan Heights

The boy is one of 96 casualties of war to have been admitted to Ziv Hospital in the Israeli city of Safed since February. The Israeli medics can only guess where exactly he came from and how he managed to cross the border from Syria. Most of the patients were simply picked up by the Israeli army or United Nations peacekeepers and brought to the emergency wards of one of the hospitals in northern Israel.

A military field hospital somewhere in the Golan Heights has also been set up to treat Syrian casualties – though it is top secret. This humanitarian aid is a touchy subject since Israel and Syria are officially still in a state of war.

Help for anyone

“We don’t know exactly how they get to us across the border. And we don’t ask them any questions,” says Calin Shapira, the hospital’s deputy director. “For us they are patients who need immediate help or they will die. And it makes no difference where they come from, or whether they’re combatants or civilians.”

The Ziv Hospital has some experience with casualties of war. The hospital was opened in 1973 shortly before the Yom Kippur War broke out, and the wounded were regularly brought to its doors. And the hospital was used again in Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, when it was hit by a rocket fired by the Lebanese Hezbollah.

And yet this is still a peculiar situation for the medics. An Israeli soldier has been stationed to guard the intensive care ward in order to stop the identities of the Syrian patients from being disclosed. Journalists are not allowed to speak to most of them. And in the meantime new cases are arriving almost every week – including increasing numbers of women and children.

Doktor Shapira with a letter from Syria
Klinik: SIEFF oder ZIV Medical Center in Safed oder Tsfat, je nach Schreibweise
Deutsche Welle, Tanja Krämer, September 2013 Shapira says they don’t ask how their patients got to the hospital

The doctors often know very little about the injured. Some have a kind of “transfer document” in their pocket – hasty notes scrawled on a scrap of paper by a Syrian doctor who will probably never meet his Israeli counterpart.

“There is still blood on some of them,” says Shapira thoughtfully. “The doctors write down what they’ve already done, and that they are sending the patient to us so that we can do our best for them. And of course that’s what we try to do.”

Treated by ‘the enemy’

Most of the patients come alone, with nothing more than the clothes on their back. The hospital pays the cost of treatment, and the medical personnel take care of everything – from toothbrushes to clothing – and they also provide the attention that every patient needs.

Most of the patients are shocked when they realize where they are, says Kassis. “For them, Israel is the country of the enemy,” he says. “They surely never dreamt that they would ever be treated here.” Trust is built up slowly – most of the patients stay several weeks.

A little girl and her mother are also on the ward, both with serious leg injuries caused by bomb shrapnel. The eight-year-old’s right leg is in a wire frame. “It’s a very complicated break,” says Alexander Lerner, head of orthopedic surgery. “In Syria they may have had to amputate.” But he is determined to save the girl’s leg by way of a complex treatment. He hopes that in two weeks she will be able to make her first attempts at walking on crutches.

An Israeli medical staff tends to a Syrian man, who was wounded in the ongoing violence in Syria, as he lies on a hospital bed during his treatment at Ziv hospital, which perches on a rocky hilltop in the upper Galilee town of Safed on August 28, 2013. The army says it has transported Syrian wounded from the Quneitra ceasefire line crossing in the occupied Golan Heights to Ziv, which is some 40 kilometres (25 miles) away. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images) The identities of the patients are kept secret

The doctor jokes with his young patient, tickles her foot, and her toes twitch. The girl laughs – a good sign. The tears only come when mother and daughter think of their home. Father and siblings were left behind in Syria. They haven’t heard any news from them. They want to return home, but what awaits them there?

That’s a tough question for the doctors too: “I have patients that I’ve treated for one or two months,” says Kassis. “We talk every day. Of course the situation affects me too. You ask yourself what their fate will be – will they still get medical treatment? It’s difficult.”

Only one thing is clear: sooner or later, the army will take them back toward Syria in an ambulance, with enough medicine to get them through a few weeks. The doctors can only hope that their help hasn’t been in vain.

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