Two weeks ago Mohammed set out with his wife, who is eight months pregnant, and their toddler son to flee heavy Russian bombing near his hometown in the Daraa region of war-torn Syria. But as they made their way to a neighboring city, airstrikes followed them.
It was then they decided to head further west, to the Israeli border, joining thousands from cities and towns in southwestern Syria, seeking shelter from the attacks by the Syrian army backed by the Russian air force in what may be the final throes of Syria’s civil war.
“I’ll be first to enter Israel if they open the border,” said Mohammed, a teacher in his 20s from Daara province.
Mohammed was speaking to reporters by Skype from the village of al-Briqa about a half mile from the Israeli border. There families are living in tents and trailer homes after having fled Assad’s forces.
Daraa, where the revolt against Assad began in 2011, and neighboring Quneitra province are under attack, part of the onslaught by Syrian President Bashar Assad as he tries to reclaim the last remaining rebel-held areas in hopes he can put down the insurrection in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed.
But despite the surge of Syrian civilians seeking protection near or along the Israeli and Jordanian borders – according to estimates up to 300,000 people are on the move – Israel’s policy is firm: yes to humanitarian and medical aid but no to taking in refugees.
Because of the recent surge in Syrian refugees, Israel has ramped up humanitarian supplies it is providing. About 10,000 to 15,000 Syrians are camped out near the Israeli side of the border, Lt. Col. Tomer Koller, the medical officer of the Golan Division, told reporters on the Israeli side of the border.
Civilians are fleeing to the demilitarized buffer zone that was created in the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement after the Yom Kippur War.
Mohammed’s statement that he’d be happy to seek refuge in Israel would have been shocking a few years ago. Syria and Israel are long-standing enemies between whom tensions have flared along the border in recent years.
Treating the wounded
But Mohammed’s sentiments indicate a possible rapprochement with the Syrian public, particularly those in neighboring southwestern Syria, where word has spread of the high-level medical care Israel has given Syrian wounded over the past five years.
Israel began providing urgent medical care around two years into the Syrian war. Since 2012, roughly 3,500 people have been treated, Israeli officials say.
Most of the wounded are treated at the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, a coastal city about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Lebanese border. Most of the patients arrive with bullet or shrapnel wounds, according to Eyal Sala, a surgeon at the hospital.
Since a week ago Thursday, 13 wounded Syrians have arrived for treatment, all of them in serious condition, according to Hagai Einav, the hospital’s spokesman. The hospital is currently treating 40 Syrians, he said.
According to Dr. Koller, the medical officer for the Golan Division, some of the children Israel has treated in the past two weeks arrived without adult supervision; he says they fear their relatives may have been killed in the airstrikes and ground assaults.
Sela, the surgeon, described complicated reconstructive surgery he and his teams have performed, including on jaws and cheeks, sometimes the result of sniper fire.
“And what we see here is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We see Syrians who have survived, come by pickup truck and been sent to clinics in Jordan and Turkey, but they prefer to come here. We were told that they’re told that if they want to save a leg or arm, their best chance is to come to us.”
According to Sela, some of the patients reach Israel three or four weeks after they have been wounded and first received treatment, arriving with bacterial infections that he and other doctors had never seen before.
Sela said patients in Syria may have been incorrectly given antibiotics in the past and built up resistance when they really needed the drug.
Hani, a Syrian in his early 20s from a town near Damascus, has been at the medical center for two years receiving treatment. His face was badly wounded when he was shot by a Syrian-army soldier, forcing him to undergo multiple plastic-surgery operations, he said.
“I am so thankful to the Israeli army and all those in Israel who helped me get treatment,” he told reporters at the hospital this week.
Next to him sat Nawras, also in his early 20s, who lost both his hands in a June airstrike; his face and an eye were also injured. He was transferred to Israel from a field hospital in Syria after being told it was the only place he could get the treatment he needed.
Both Nawras and Hani said they had grown up on stories of Israel as an enemy nation. “I heard from those wounded in the past that were treated here that Israel treats patients well,” Hani said.
Part of Hani’s journey was actually on horseback. He like others who arrived at the border fence was checked by the Israeli army to make sure he was not armed, was treated by an army medical team and then sent to the hospital.
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