Is treating Syrians a humanitarian gesture or strategic policy for Israel?
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Is treating Syrians a humanitarian gesture or strategic policy for Israel?

Whether a farmer or FSA fighter, IDF says it will help anyone in need; thousands of injured from across the border choose to be treated in ‘enemy’ Jewish State

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

  • Illustrative: Syrian children being treated at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed (Courtesy)
    Illustrative: Syrian children being treated at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed (Courtesy)
  • A Syrian girl being treated at ZIv Hospital in Safed (Courtesy: Ziv Hospital)
    A Syrian girl being treated at ZIv Hospital in Safed (Courtesy: Ziv Hospital)
  • Syrian children being treated at Ziv Hospital in Safed in 2016. (Courtesy: Ziv Hospital)
    Syrian children being treated at Ziv Hospital in Safed in 2016. (Courtesy: Ziv Hospital)

Faris is a Syrian patient at Safed’s Ziv Medical Center recovering from a leg injury after stepping on an unexploded bomb in a field. He says he is a 24-year-old bean farmer from the Damascus suburb of al-Kaswe.

The Israeli doctor who treated Faris cannot corroborate the young Syrian’s story. The real identity of this man, who refused to reveal his last name out of security concerns, is unknown to anybody in the hospital. Was he really a fighting-age male in the middle of a war zone just farming his beans?

The official line from the Israeli army is that it will treat any Syrian who requires serious medical assistance, no matter who they are. Medical assistance to Syrian civil war casualties, the IDF says, is a humanitarian initiative.

And the humanitarian dimension of the initiative is far-reaching, indeed. Over 2,000 Syrians have been treated in Israel, 600 in Ziv alone, since December 2013. Many are women and children.

Syrian children being treated at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed (Courtesy)
Syrian children being treated at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed (Courtesy)

Injured Syrians can sometimes choose between seeking treatment in Jordan or in Israel, but most choose to get treated in the “enemy” Jewish State, where they know they can get top-quality health care quickly. The Ziv Medical Center is only 18.5 miles (30 kilometers) from the Syrian border.

The head of the Ziv Hospital's orthopedic department Dr. Alexander Lerner pointing to Faris's wounded leg. March 10, 2016. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Prof. Alexander Lerner, head of the Ziv Medical Center’s orthopedic department, pointing to a Syrian patient’s wounded leg, March 10, 2016. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

Of the 600 Syrian patients treated to date at the Safed hospital, of whom 80 percent arrived with severe orthopedic trauma, only nine have died. Many return to Syria able to walk again, with orthopedic devices that can cost up to $3,000 each. Each patient costs the Israeli taxpayer about $15,000, Prof. Alexander Lerner, the head of the hospital’s orthopedic department, told a group of visiting journalists last week.

Others have also visited the hospital to learn about Israel’s medical treatment of Syrians for the past two years, including different media outlets and politicians, such as Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

Despite the publicity, a few critical questions still remain. Among them: Is it really possible that the IDF does not differentiate between bean farmers and radical Islamists committed to Israel’s destruction? And who is coordinating the transfer of the Syrian wounded to the IDF?

Israel continues to profess its neutrality in the Syrian civil war, and security officials credibly claim that there can be no particularly good outcome as far as Israel is concerned. Whatever Syria’s ultimate fate, more than four decades of relative tranquility are plainly over. Still, both the Israeli army and experts familiar with the situation acknowledge that the IDF has contacts with rebels across the border. Which rebels, however, is a closely guarded secret.

Some reports from UN peacekeepers on the border between Israel and Syria have substantiated that the IDF is providing more than just medical assistance to rebel factions. No report, however, has named Israel’s partner rebel groups or specified what the extra aid might be.

Natural allies?

On Faris’s bedside table lies a copy of “The Story of the Prophets,” a 700-year-old Arabic classic that retells the story of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic prophets. On his hand, a black bracelet on which is written “John: 3:30.” No, he is not a Christian — some German tourists had visited and given him the bracelet. He said he will wear it as a reminder of the kindness he received in Israel.

A copy of the "Story of the Prophets" near the bedside of a Syrian patient in Ziv hospital. March 10, 2016. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
A copy of the ‘Story of the Prophets’ near the bedside of a Syrian patient in Ziv Medical Center, Safed, on March 10, 2016. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

How did Faris get to Israel? After he was injured, he said, “the guys came and brought me to the border crossing. The Israeli army was waiting there for me and took me to the hospital.”

“The guys? Which guys?” this reporter asked.

Faris paused for a few seconds. “The Free Syrian Army brought me to the border,” he said.

Faris’s admission does not mean that Israel is working directly with the Free Syrian Army. FSA brigades, however, are found in large numbers along the border with Israel in southern Syria. As they are for the most part neither ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction nor loyal to Iran, the group could perhaps be Israel’s natural ally.

Free Syrian Army fighters run after attacking a Syrian Army tank during fighting in the Izaa district of Aleppo, Syria, on September 7, 2012. (AP/Manu Brabo, File)
Free Syrian Army fighters run after attacking a Syrian army tank during fighting in the Izaa district of Aleppo, Syria, on September 7, 2012. (AP/Manu Brabo, File)

The bean farmer is not the first person to constitute an ostensible link between the IDF and the moderate rebel confederacy. When an FSA commander was abducted by al-Nusra fighters in July 2014, they had him confess in a video to collaborating with Israel.

The captured commander said that rebels could only approach the border with Israel after coordinating with the IDF. He also said that after five meetings with IDF commanders within Israel, he began receiving “basic medical support and clothes” as well as weapons, which included Russian rifles, RPG launchers with 47 rockets, and thousands of rounds of bullets. None of this was confirmed by Israel.

Syrian opposition commander Sharif As-Safouri confesses to collaborating with Israel (photo credit: YouTube screen capture)
Syrian opposition commander Sharif As-Safouri confesses to collaborating with Israel (YouTube screen capture)

In the bed next to Faris lies Abu Hamza, a 35-year-old physician from near Damascus, who also asked that his full name not be published for his safety. He is married and a father of two.

The moment Abu Hamza finished medical school in 2011, the war broke out. His residency would take place in field hospitals, treating rebel fighters, although he refused to say which fighters. He would only say that he was “supporting people oppressed by the regime.”

Last week, Abu Hamza’s car was targeted by the Islamic State near the town of New Quneitra, which is visible from the Israeli border. From the moment he was injured until he was in the hands of the IDF, said the field doctor, only 45 minutes had elapsed. The swiftness by which he was transferred into Israeli hands would suggest another indication of coordination between the IDF and groups across the border.

When asked if he felt strange about entering the so-called enemy state of Israel, he responded: “The State of Israel is only the enemy in the mind of Bashar Assad. In the last five years, we’ve been on the border with Israel and nothing bad has happened from the Israeli side.”

Mystery patients

The staff of the Ziv Medical Center does not know the identity of the Syrians they are treating, said Channa Bikel, a hospital official. Only the army knows.

Could Israelis be treating fighters from the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front, which the IDF estimates currently controls 80 percent of the Syrian border with Israel? Speaking to a group of journalists on the Syrian border, IDF Spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner seemed to indicate it was possible.

‘We will treat anybody in dire need’

“We follow a medical professional policy. We do not screen. We will treat anybody in dire need. If someone comes to the border with no legs, you cannot just leave him there,” he said.

At one point, it seemed, Israel was indeed knowingly treating members of al-Nusra.

In June of last year, army ambulances transporting Syrians were ambushed by a group of Israeli Druze, who killed one of the wounded. The lynching took place in the shadow of a massacre by members of the al-Nusra Front against a Druze community in northern Syria the month before.

An IDF ambulance that was attacked by Druze Israeli residents in the Golan Heights as it ferried Syrian war casualties for medical treatment in Israel, June 22, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
An IDF ambulance that was attacked by Druze Israeli residents in the Golan Heights as it ferried Syrian war casualties for medical treatment in Israel, June 22, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

A senior IDF commander reportedly confirmed to the Haaretz daily that Israel had treated a number of al-Nusra fighters, whom he described as having “infiltrated” into Israel to get medical treatment. He said the Islamist fighters had gotten past simple identity checks. Following last year’s lynch, however, the army had decided to stop treating al-Nusra fighters and started checking the identity of anyone coming into Israel for treatment.

A senior IDF official from the Northern Command, however, gave a conflicting version of this issue, saying the Druze did not initially understand the army’s policy of treating all Syrians, regardless of their affiliation. Today, the Druze, he said, are content with Israel’s open door humanitarian policy.

Humanitarian diplomacy

The IDF is sending mixed messages. Sometimes officials will say the screening of Syrians does occur, while other times they claim any injured person can come through, get treatment and go back.

The lack of clarity may simply be miscommunication. It may also, however, simply reflect the reality that the IDF’s strategy vis-a-vis Syrians is highly fluid.

A senior IDF officer told The Times of Israel that Israel’s treatment of Syrians was not even a planned initiative.

The story goes like this: Some three years ago, a company commander saw two injured Syrians lying along the border fence. The commander decided he would offer them medical treatment — and thus, a policy was born. Israel’s goodwill then reportedly spread through Syria by word of mouth, the IDF officer said.

And then, last June Israel officially stopped pretending that treating Syrians was wholly a humanitarian effort.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon speaks to students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2015. (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon speaks to students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on March 4, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90

Following the lynching of the al-Nusra fighter, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon set the record straight and publicly confirmed that Israel was treating rebel fighters. Medical aid, he said, was being given under two conditions: that Islamic extremists don’t get close to the border and that the Syrian Druze population is protected.

So far, Israel and the Syrian rebels have kept their sides of the bargain.

Nir Boms, who recently wrote a memo for Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) entitled “Syria: New Map, New Actors Challenges and Opportunities for Israel,” called Israel’s efforts with Syrians “humanitarian diplomacy.”

Through its humanitarian efforts, argued Boms, Israel is also forming important contacts and relationships with Syrian groups just across the border. These local groups help keep the area safe, and keep channels of communication open to the other side.

Israel, however, cannot risk publicly declare with whom it has contacts, according to Boms, because such a declaration would hurt that group’s position and perhaps endanger its members from rival hardline Islamist groups like al-Nusra.

It is possible, said Boms, that Israel had treated members of al-Nusra. Rebel fighters have been switching back and forth between FSA brigades and more Islamist groups. Perhaps, he explained, those al-Nusra members who came through were linked to more moderate groups with whom the IDF has connections.

That Israel remains ambiguous about the identity of those groups on the other side, he said, “is not divorced from logic.”

In a conflict where loyalties and realities on the ground are constantly shifting, concluded Boms, ambiguity and complexity can leave much needed room for maneuvering.

Judah Ari Gross and Elhanan Miller contributed to this report.

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