In enemy care: Syrians treated in Israeli hospitals
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Although Israel and Syria are officially at war, Israeli hospitals have been treating a trickle of Syrians wounded in the conflict. Since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 Israeli policy has remained neutral, at least publicly.
A Syrian boy lies hovering between life and death in an Israeli hospital, oblivious to the Mickey Mouse and motorbike stickers on the wall, as a bank of screens monitor his vital signs.
Avidan Landau, a nurse at the Ziv Medical Center in northern Israel, enters the ward to check the boy’s saline drip. "He's just a kid, not my enemy,” says Landau. “A child cannot be an enemy."
Israel and Syria have been officially in a state of war for decades. Since the Syrian uprising broke out more than two years ago, Israel has – until recently – been careful not to publicly take sides in the conflict raging across its northeastern border.
But since early this year, at least two Israeli hospitals have been treating a trickle of seriously wounded Syrians. At the Ziv Medical Center, nearly 100 Syrian patients, brought in from across the Golan frontline, have been treated since February.
The Israeli government, always concerned to counter its negative image with much of the Arab world, has made no secret that Israeli doctors have been treating wounded Syrians.
But for the patients, it’s a lot trickier.
A wounded man, who agreed to talk to FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution back home by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) is cooperating with the Israeli army at the border.
"The [Syrian rebel] fighters take the patients without carrying weapons,” explained the wounded man. “They put us on a particular spot where the Israeli army can see us. Then the Israelis come and take us. To be honest, I was shocked that Israel took us in."
In another bed, a severely wounded little girl with an amputated leg breaks into a huge grin as a doctor arrives and shakes her hand.
Her mother, who is also wounded and lying next to her daughter on another bed, covers her face as she speaks to FRANCE 24.
"If someone back home asks me where I was treated in hospital, I'll say Israel. I'm very thankful to their doctors and wish them every success. But I can't say much more than that," she said.
Back to Syria after medical treatment
Since the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011, more than 110,000 people have been killed and over 2 million Syrians have fled, mostly for neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Israel refuses to accept refugees from a country with which it is still technically at war but also because the Jewish state does not want to signal its readiness to welcome droves of refugees. While patients are treated in Israeli hospitals, once they recover, they are not allowed to stay in the country.
"We notify the Israel Defense Forces who come with their military ambulance. They take the patients away from the hospital and bring them back to Syria…but where exactly, I don’t know," said Dr. Oscar Embon, director of the Ziv Medical Center.
The medical staff at the hospital is adamant that this is just a humanitarian response to the conflict in a neighbouring country and that there’s no politics involved. They do however note that all of the Syrian patients being treated at the hospital belong to the anti-Assad camp.
Israel wants Assad ‘bad guys’ out
In a recent break from Israel’s studied public neutrality in the Syrian conflict, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told The Jerusalem Post that Israel has wanted to see Assad removed from power since the uprising began.
In an excerpt of the interview with the Israeli daily, which is set to be published Friday, Oren said the “bad guys” backed by Iran are worse for Israel than rebels backed by hardline Islamist groups.
"The initial message about the Syrian issue was that we always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran," said Oren.
Iran has been a major backer of Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. In recent months, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah has admitted to sending its battle-hardened fighters to assist the Assad regime.
But while Iran and Hezbollah are arch-foes of the Israeli state, many analysts have noted that rebels linked to Islamist groups are no friends of the Jewish state either.
Oren’s statement is the first public acknowledgement of how Israel strategically views the Syrian conflict.
“That’s very new because up until now, officially – or at least publicly – the Israeli government has never expressed any kind of preference between the rebels and the [Syrian] regime,” explained FRANCE 24’s Gallagher Fenwick, reporting from Israel. “What remains unclear at this point however is whether Israel has been, or will be, helping the opposition bring about the fall of Bashar al-Assad.”
Diplomats from the five veto-wielding UN Security Council member nations have been locked in talks in New York this week to try to hammer out a resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
While Israel and Syria have maintained a stable standoff since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Israel today is nervous about Assad’s chemical stockpiles, which is the Syrian regime’s most potent deterrent against its nuclear armed neighbour. Israel neither confirms nor denies it possesses nuclear weapons, but most analysts agree it is the only nuclear armed nation in the Middle East.
“Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear mostly to US Secretary of State John Kerry that the international community needs to show its determination in having its red lines respected,” explained FRANCE 24’s Fenwick, referring to US President Barack Obama’s “red line” on the use of Syrian chemical weapons. “Netanyahu wants the international efforts to be coupled with a clear military threat.”
While the diplomats wrangle over the wording of resolutions, thousands of miles away, on a clean hospital bed with gaily printed sheets overseen by a grinning Mickey Mouse, one little boy is still fighting for his life at a hospital in enemy territory.
If he recovers, he may have to return to his war-torn homeland. But for now, he’s safe in enemy hands.