Approximately 700 Syrian citizens, most of them injured in the civil war, have received medical treatment in Israel. At present around 490 Syrian nationals are inpatients at hospitals in northern Israel. Of these, 233 are at the Rebecca Sieff Hospital, Safed; 200 at the Western Galilee Hospital, Nahariya; 38 at Poriya Hospital, Tiberias; and 20 at the Rambam Medical Center, Haifa.
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The remainder, about 210, were treated on the Syria-Israel border in the Golan Heights, at a field hospital set up at an Israel Defense Forces base. The field hospital has been inactive for the last few months.
Most of the patients, including a week-old baby girl, were civilian noncombatants. In some cases, their injuries were not connected to the war. Some of those in need of treatment arrive in Israel with their medical records.
When the patient is a minor, an adult family member is generally allowed to stay with them in the hospital.
In most cases, the patients are returned to Syria after being discharged from the hospital, after receiving a copy of their treatment and hospitalization history as well as a supply of any drugs needed. A small number of patients have returned to Israel for continued treatment.
The Israeli humanitarian effort has been under way for around a year; some human-rights activists are now saying that Israel should also offer asylum to the Syrian patients.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel has recently taken up the cause of the Syrians receiving medical treatment in Israel.
The organization’s director of public outreach, Hadas Ziv, says it has two main demands. First, she says, protocols must be established “that would ensure every injured Syrian receive a meeting with a representative of the Red Cross or the UN refugee agency, and that each and every patient be informed of the possibility of remaining in Israel as an asylum seeker.”
Ziv’s organization is also concerned about what happens to the patients after they are sent back to Syria.
“Many dilemmas arise from this situation, and they should be looked into. Hospitals are engaging in lifesaving work and giving excellent care, but it could all be for naught,” Ziv says, adding, “What happens afterward? What about rehabilitation? What happens to someone whose legs have been amputated, for example?”
The general director of Western Galilee Hospital, Dr. Massad Barhoum, says, “Every patient that comes through the hospital doors is first and foremost a person in need of lifesaving medical care. In the eyes of our staff, treating Syrians is a moral obligation, as well as a professional and humane honor. We see more and more injuries from the civil war in Syria: infants, children, teenagers, men and women alike. All of them, in one terrible moment, become part of the harsh reality in a neighboring country.
“It’s fully clear to me that saving the lives of these people is just a drop in the bucket compared to the loss of life in this conflict, the end of which isn’t in sight. All of the hospital departments have joined together in their commitment to continue dispensing dedicated and professional care, including complex treatments and surgeries, some of which haven’t been performed in Israeli hospitals for years,” Barhoum says.
So far only one Syrian citizen who was treated in Israel has applied for asylum. Her request is being reviewed by the High Court of Justice; details have not been released.
Hospital staff members who have been in contact with Syrian patients told Haaretz that they have not heard any of them talk of wanting to remain in Israel rather than return to their homes in Syria. “They’ve asked to go home, in private talks with me,” said one hospital staffer. He recalled a case in which a man who lost his eyes turned down an offer to stay in Israel for rehabilitation, preferring to return home to Syria.
“The UN refugee agency recommends against sending refugees back to war-torn areas,” Ziv notes, adding, “The agency has even asked that Syrian citizens not be sent to Lebanon or to Turkey, as those nations are flooded with refugees and have asked for help in dealing with the burden. Israel has no obligation to accept refugees, it’s its decision whether to accept the recommendations. My sense is that because Syria is a hostile state, the agency does not want to pressure Israel in fear that Israel might cease hospitalizing and treating patients.”
Continuing, Ziv says that “We can’t minimize Israel’s contribution, but we also mustn’t make assumptions, we should make patients aware of the possibility to stay here. Not all of them have meetings with any UN or Red Cross representatives. The hospital staff members, as good as they are, haven’t the slightest idea about refugee rights, or international treaties. These people must be interviewed by official organizations, that should make regular visits.
“Larger questions must also be asked – for example, how can we help Jordan? How can we do our part in the regional effort? If we sent aid delegations to Haiti, we can’t help in Jordan?”
While it’s the hospitals that are responsible for treating the patients, after they are discharged it’s the Israel Defense Forces that return them to Syria. The Interior Ministry, which has nothing to do with the process. The patients’ entry and exists are not registered, and they are not granted any kind of status.
Attorney Tamir Blanc, legal consultant for Physicians for Human Rights, says that Israeli law affects the injured Syrians in two ways: It is prohibited to return individuals to a place where their lives are in danger, and Israel is bound by the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a treaty signed in 1951.
According to Blank, “Of course there’s no kind of consensus that they should all be allowed to stay in Israel, but the claims made by those who say that their lives are in danger if they return to Syria should be fully and seriously investigated. Israel has no obligation to initiate a request for asylum, but if someone makes such a request, it must be considered,” Blank says.