NAHARIYA, Israel — The Syrian in the Israeli hospital bed said he’d been riding his motorcycle in his village when a shell struck, sending him crashing into a nearby vehicle.
With one of his legs shattered and an arm broken, he was taken to a clinic operated by the rebel Free Syrian Army and then moved through a hole cut in the fence on the Israeli-held Golan Heights. Now he’s being treated along with about a dozen other wounded Syrians in the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, a town on Israel’s northern coast.
Syria and Israel are formally at war, and the idea of Syrians being treated in an Israeli hospital once would have been unthinkable. But the brutality of the Syrian civil war has driven some 200 wounded Syrians in the past six months to seek help at the Israeli frontier on the Golan Heights, according to the Israeli army.
Soldiers take them to a field hospital for treatment and triage, with more serious cases sent to hospitals in northern Israel. About 100 have been treated at the Nahariya hospital, with more arriving as news of the Israeli medical aid spreads by word of mouth.
For the man in the bed, who declined to be named for fear of retribution against his family back home, treatment in Israel has been a profoundly transforming experience.
“I thank the Israeli army,” he said. “Two and a half years of revolution have changed my opinion of Israel. Look what Bashar Assad” – Syria’s president – “has done to his people. Everything he says is a lie. He spreads hatred of Israel, but Israel is a friend, not an enemy. The Israelis showed us their humanity.”
The man, who’s from the region of Daraa , said the Syrian army had shelled his village as retribution for the resistance from anti-government fighters in the area. He said seeking medical treatment at government facilities would have exposed him to the risk of being seized, beaten or even killed by state agents looking to exact revenge on insurgents.
The Free Syrian Army clinic at Bir Ajam, a village near the border of the Israeli-held Golan Heights, had bandages but little else, the man said. So he was moved to Israel.
Many of the wounded who end up in Israel arrive unconscious and are jarred when they awake in an Israeli hospital, surrounded by Israeli nurses and doctors, including Arab staff who speak their language.
“At first they’re quite scared and closed, but after a few days of treatment they start to absorb that they’re being cared for by Israelis, and they become more receptive,” said Dr. Eyal Sela, who directs head and neck surgery at the Nahariya hospital.
Sela said his staff had performed complicated reconstructive surgery on seriously wounded patients. “As soon as you show them sympathy and start talking to them with the help of a translator, you establish human contact and they begin to open up,” he said.
The doctor recalled the case of a 20-year-old man who arrived with serious bullet wounds to the neck, jaw and chest, and who after several operations regained the ability to eat. “When we did the first test successfully he simply started to cry, and the nurses and doctors wept with him,” Sela recalled. “It was very emotional. When he left us he wrote a thank-you letter in Arabic, saying he hoped there would be peace between us and promised that he would visit, and that we could visit him.”
In one hospital room, a 22-year-old fighter from the Free Syrian Army was recovering from a gunshot wound in the shoulder. The Syrian army, he asserted, had committed atrocities, destroying mosques and raping women. “The Free Syrian Army will never fight Israel,” he said. “Assad’s army is the enemy, not the Israeli military.”
Shortly after he spoke, a pair of Israeli soldiers arrived to escort the young man back to the border after he was cleared for release from the hospital. Changing out of his hospital smock, he donned the ragged clothes of a rebel fighter that he’d arrived in, his pants ripped at the knee. He donned a pair of military-style boots he said he’d obtained from Jordan.
A 17-year-old who entered the room in a wheelchair said that at the border he’d been frightened by Israeli soldiers pointing their rifles at him and ordering him to raise his hands. After an examination and transfer for medical treatment, he said he was surprised by the “compassion, sympathy and humanity” shown him at the hospital.
Dr. Masad Barhoum, the hospital’s director, who’s an Israeli Arab, said the military had pressed the Nahariya facility – which serves both Jewish and Arab Israelis in northern Israel – into service to help handle serious cases that army medics were unequipped to deal with.
“We’re helping people simply as human beings,’ he said. “There’s a human tragedy unfolding close by, and we’re moved by the opportunity to help.”
Sela said he felt “privileged to help people who arrive with such serious wounds, when we know that in Syria there’s no chance they’ll get this level of treatment. At the human level, when you touch someone you’ve touched a whole world, and he will pass it on.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.