The Israeli military allowed cameras into a secret field hospital on the Syrian border for the first time.
On Friday evening, Channel 2 News aired footage of the fenced Golan Heights facility, which has treated over 700 Syrian patients since it was established less than a year ago.
The hospital, staffed by soldiers in uniform, includes an emergency room, an intensive care unit, an operating theater, a mobile laboratory, a pharmacy and an x-ray facility. It treats Syrian patients who cross the border regardless of creed – or of where their loyalties lie.
The once-sporadic treatment of Syrian nationals in Israel has, by now, become routine, the report made clear: the wounded cross the border, and IDF medical teams deployed in the Golan Heights give them preliminary treatment. Those who are well enough are sent back across the border, and those who require further treatment are evacuated to the military hospital, a field commander at the facility told Channel 2. In this way, the hospital treats about a hundred Syrians per month.
Maj. Itay Zoarets, a senior surgeon, described the situation as “surreal.”
He said that while soldiers and commanders in the IDF’s medical corps underwent rigorous training to learn how to treat battle wounds, the Israeli military hadn’t encountered such injuries since the last big wars.
The wounded Syrians, he said, suffer from grave stomach and head injuries, as well as amputations and a range of other injuries. Extreme cases are transferred to Israeli civilian hospitals in the north and center of the country.
The patients also cross the border armed with gross misconceptions about Israel and its people.
“They say that before the previous week, before they came, they thought we were the Great Satan, the enemies, and looked for the tails between our legs,” Zoarets said.
He added that the field hospital was shrouded in secrecy when it was first established – even within the IDF itself.
“We didn’t know where we were going at first,” he said. “They just set up a medical team without outlining the mission … The army called, so we came.”
A nurse at the hospital, Capt. Shirin Parizadeh, said that while the Syrian patients were “suspicious” towards the Israeli medical team, “that’s something we get over together.”
Firas, a rebel fighter who was being treated at the hospital at the time of filming, blasted Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government for neglecting and oppressing the people of Syria.
“Every day there are aerial bombings of cities. Each city is bombed three or four times by fighter planes,” Firas, who defected from Assad’s army to join the rebels fighting to topple him, said.
“Bashar [Assad] didn’t take care of us. Here, in Israel, we are being taken care of. Bashar doesn’t care about us, whereas Israel does. Bashar fires shells at us, he doesn’t care about us at all.”
Another patient, Latif, said, “They taught us about the Zionist enemy, the Zionist oppressor. But when we saw the Zionists, [we realized] they were nothing like what we’d been told. They’re human beings just like us, human, and even more than that.”
Ahmed, who was also being treated at the hospital at the time of filming, said that in the aftermath of the uprising against Assad, “we came to understand who is an enemy and who is a friend.”
He said that as the fighting raged on, many Syrians began to doubt what they’d been taught about the countries across the border from their own.
“The regime convinced us everyone around us is our enemy,” he said.
Col. Tarif Bader, commander of the hospital, said that while the decision to administer humanitarian aid to populations outside of Israel was always a dilemma, in this case, it was “the right choice” – one he was proud to be a part of.
He added that most patients suffered from “serious battle wounds.” Among them were men as old as 83, as well as young children, who another staff member described as strong and communicative. ”They don’t look frightened,” he said.
The staff described the many moments that made working at the field hospital a surreal experience. Once, when a mortar shell fell near the hospital, they said, soldiers and Syrians alike were running towards what little shelter the small base had to offer.
“It’s an incredible situation,” Zoarets said of his experiences, before being called away to tend to a new arrival.
Political analyst Ehud Ya’ari said this hospital is just the tip of the iceberg, hinting at the many connections Israel has forged across the border and the efforts it has made to prevent clashes in which al-Qaeda-linked forces are involved — clashes that have been taking place just over the border from the field hospital — from spilling over into Israel.
The Syrian uprising began with largely peaceful calls for reform in March 2011 and escalated into armed conflict in response to a military crackdown. It has since transformed into a regional proxy war with Iran and Saudi Arabia supporting opposing sides, and has claimed the lives of over 130,000 people so far.
Foreign fighters and Islamic extremists have infiltrated the opposition rebels, triggering infighting that has undermined the rebellion against Assad and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis brought on by the conflict.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.