Helping Syrians--despite a history of enmity

Israel's once-secret operation to care for victims of Syria's war

It started as a secret operation to help a few wounded civilians, victims of the Syrian civil war. With the intervention of the United Nations, Israel was asked to aid those with urgent medical needs. The war had almost completely destroyed Syria's health system and hospitals. 

Syria, a country officially in a state of war with Israel since 1948, has never asked for Israeli help of any sort. But the Jewish State found itself in a dilemma, wanting to help innocent civilian victims-despite their belonging to an enemy state. Secrecy--especially for those receiving help--was imperative if such efforts were to stand any chance of success.

A system was established by which the most urgent patients were brought to the highly-defended Israeli border fence that runs along the Golan Heights and serves as the border between Syria and Israel. On one side of the fence lies a democratic country, an island of stability amidst the turmoil that so often characterizes the Middle East. 

On the other side of the fence lies Syria, a country torn by a ferocious civil war since March 2011, in what looks like a free-for-all. The "civil" war dimension has been compounded by the participation of other nations and external terrorist groups. Arrayed on the battlefield are the Syrian forces supported by Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. Fighting against them are a dozen rebel forces including ISIS, many of which are fighting among themselves at the same time as they are fighting the Assad regime. To add to the chaos, on the ground and in the air are Russian, Turkish, NATO, and  U.S. forces.

The victims are almost always unarmed civilians caught in the crossfire between the dozens of guerilla forces and militias fighting each other in the streets of every Syrian city, in the villages and in the desert. Those victims started showing up at the Israeli border on the Golan Heights with increasing frequency. Brought to a gate in the fence by cars, jeeps, and trucks, they would be left on the Syrian side, their caregivers quickly driving away before Israeli forces arrived at the gate. 

Once Israeli reconnaissance forces saw that a wounded Syrian was brought to the gate, they would send in a military ambulance. Under the shelter of darkness, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers would open the gate and bring in the wounded. 

From the Golan Heights, the wounded were then swiftly driven to the Ziv Hospital in Safed or to the Western Galilee Medical Center where the wounded would receive the very best medical treatment that could be provided by doctors who were well-trained in treating battle wounds. Life-saving surgeries were performed, prosthetic limbs were fitted, and bodies were mended. 

No questions were ever asked of the wounded-were they civilians? Were they combatants? Were they with the Assad forces or with ISIS? For the director of the Ziv Medical Center, tending to the wounded is not a political question- it is a humanitarian mission. 

The Director, Colonel (reserves) Dr. Salman Zarka, is a member of the Israeli Druze minority. The director of the Western Galilee Medical Center is Dr. Masad Barhoum, an Arab Christian. For these two hospital directors, religion is not a factor when it comes to treating patients. Their hospitals have so far treated over 2,500 Syrians-free of charge, of course. 

For the state of Israel, lending a helping hand, even to an enemy, is not even a matter of debate. It is a matter of fact as much as it was natural for the IDF to send the first field hospital to Haiti or to Nepal after the earthquakes in those countries. Israel even offered help to Iran after an earthquake hit that country a few years ago (an offer that was refused). Only last month, Israel's Interior Minister Aryeh Der'i (an Orthodox rabbi) authorized the entry of 100 Syrian orphans to be adopted by Israeli couples.

At an average of $15,000 spent per Syrian--and thousands have been served--the Israeli tax payer has expended tens of millions of dollars helping Syrian victims. Moreover, Israel determined that every Syrian is entitled not to the minimum level of assistance required by international humanitarian law, but actually to the exact same level as an Israeli citizen is entitled. Take that in your "Israel is an apartheid state" pipe and smoke it!

And just as it is natural for Israelis to treat wounded Syrians, it was only natural for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago to establish an Aleppo Relief Fund to help shoulder the burden of Israel's hospitals which continue to take in countless Syrian victims at no charge, sending them back home after receiving the best care that money can (or, in this case, cannot) buy. 

At the end of the day, it is a question of humanism and basic values. Which kind of people do we want to be? And while supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement will continue to criticize Israel and while anti-Semitism will continue to rage in Europe and elsewhere, Israel-with the help of Jewish communities such as ours-will continue to do the right thing and stand by victims of violence, even if they happen to be Muslim citizens of our enemies. And the doctor who runs the hospital that treats them is himself a non-Jewish IDF colonel. 

So much for so-called Israeli apartheid. 

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.

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