Israeli hospital treatment of Syrian civilians:
Untold stories, universal messages

Published: 1 September 2013
Briefing Number 321

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Summary: Israel has treated over 160 Syrian civilians who have been seriously wounded in the Syrian civil war.  This Beyond Images Briefing goes beyond the statistics and tells some untold human stories surrounding this effort.  We relate various accounts of the reactions of Syrian patients, as well as the attitudes of the Israeli hospital teams.  In the words of one Israeli doctor, quoted below:

“Saving life is a privilege, and I was happy to do that.  If there are more Syrian patients coming in that need my help, I will gladly treat them with all my heart.....”   

The information in this Briefing is taken from an in-depth report by Israeli journalist Megan Sehr, based on her visits to the hospitals involved, which was published in the Jerusalem Post on 30 August 2013 (

A Syrian mother’s message of gratitude to Israel

Around 160 Syrian civilians have been treated in Israeli hospitals after being seriously injured in the Syrian civil war (for detail see below).  

One Syrian mother and her 8-year old daughter were treated in the Ziv medical centre in the northern Israeli town of Safed.  According to the Jerusalem Post report, she said the following following the treatment:

“I am so grateful and I want to thank everyone [here in Israel] for taking care of my daughter and me.  I want to be home and have peace, but as much as I could speak about it, I’m afraid no-one can hear it..... I’m happy to receive treatment here, because I feel secure. I want there to someday be a bridge between Syria and Israel. I want to have peace......”

Syria as Israel’s turbulent neighbour

Syria is in a state of utter chaos. At least 1m Syrians have become refugees during the 2 year war, and more than 100,000 have been killed.  Chemical weapons have been used, escalating the tension and tragedy still further.
Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Syria.  Syria has fought several major wars against Israel.  Technically the countries have been at war since Israel’s independence.  

It would be hard to imagine more difficult circumstances in which one country could provide humanitarian support for another.

Israel’s hospital support for Syrian civilians

The Jerusalem Post report outlines various aspects of Israel’s hospital support and how it has come about.  Here are some key background facts:

Syrian civilians have been treated in three northern Israeli hospitals: 

-      the Western Galilee hospital in Nahariya,
-      the Poriya hospital in Tiberias, and
-      the Ziv hospital in Safed.   

How do Syrian patients get to Israel in the first place?  Israeli military doctors treat Syrians who are brought to an Israeli field hospital on the border with Syria, but the military cannot deal with the most seriously injured
Very seriously wounded Syrians are therefore brought by the Israeli army (often on very short notice) to the three Israeli hospitals: they usually have severe limb injuries and organ damage

Arab-speaking Israeli social workers meet with the patients, and calm and reassure them. But the Israeli staff have no accurate information about their injuries or possible attempts at treatment on the Syrian side, so they have to detect the problems and complications themselves

Israeli soldiers are deployed in the hospitals to guard the Syrian patients, to ensure that they are not harassed by other patients for coming to Israel for treatment, and also to guard their anonymity    

The Syrians come with nothing, and often alone, and have to be provided with basic necessities like clothes, childrens’ toys etc

Because they eventually return to Syria, Israeli doctors cannot give them follow-up care after they have been discharged.  However, the doctors provide  a letter describing the treatment and condition, which they can take with them 

The letters are not signed.  This is to ensure that the Syrians can receive follow-up care without, in the words of one hospital official, “putting their lives in danger.....”

23-year old Syrian man with a hole in his neck cries with gratitude after he is discharged from Israeli hospital

The director-general of the Ziv hospital is an Israel Arab, Dr Masad Barhoum. 

He related to the Jerusalem Post that one 23-year old Syrian man was treated for a serious shrapnel wound – it had gone through his cheek, cut through his jaw, and entered his chest. He basically had a hole in his neck.

He received multiple operations at Ziv to restore his ability to breathe, and received further specialist care to tackle a major infection in his neck-wound

Due to the hole in his neck he had been unable to eat for months, and was nursed throughout that period by the Israeli team, who in Barhoum’s words “developed a bond with him”.

Dr Eyal Selah is the head of the ear, nose and throat department at the Ziv hospital.  He describes what happened:

“I saw the Israeli nurses who were helping this poor kid, and I saw the compassion they had in their eyes.... Everyday someone gave him a new present so he would feel good and welcome..... At first he had been suspicious and confused – all he knew about Israel revolved around the conflict and he had no idea that Arabs and Jews had formed ties of cooperation and coexistence in Israel.... He saw that my staff included Muslims, Christians and Jews working together and treating everyone the same..... He couldn’t figure out what was going on, but for us it’s a way of life.....”

Selah recounts that when the Syrian was discharged, he cried as he said goodbye, saying that his time in Israel had changed his perspective on the conflict:  “He promised he would find a way to come back and see me one day... He said he hoped there could be peace one day between our countries, and that he could someday bring his family to meet me......”

Selah concluded his account as follows:

“I think saving life is a privilege and I was happy to do that.... If there are more Syrian patients coming in that need my help, I will gladly treat them with all my heart......”

15-year old Syrian girl in Ziv orthopedic centre recovers ability to walk, and the entire hospital applauds her.....

A 15-year old Syrian girl was wounded when a bomb landed on her home.  One leg was amputated in Syria, and she found herself transferred to the military field hospital on the Israeli-Syrian border, from where she was taken to the Ziv medical centre.   An Israeli medical team there saved her other leg, and also gave her a new prosthetic limb.  According to the report, when she took her first, halting steps:

“the entire [Israeli] staff accompanied the girl and her mother as she tested her new leg, breaking out in applause when she was able to make it down the hallway and back to her room.....”
An Israeli social worker who helped the girl recover her ability to walk said:
“The girl told me that she couldn’t imagine herself walking without a leg..... When she found out that someone donated a prosthetic leg, it was the happiest day for her.....”  

The message of Ziv’s Dr Eyal Selah:
We are changing the world.... in small steps

Dr Selah from the Ziv hospital reflected to the Jerusalem Post as follows:

“The monster [ie Israel in Syrian eyes] isn’t what you pictured it to be...  I think if you go down to the people and you see what they want, they just want to live their lives, raise their kids, have a normal life..... God is in the small details, not the big ones.  Go down to the small details and that is how you change the world.....”   

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