For residents of southwest Syria, hospitals 'in the enemy's territory' are a last resort

When Jaber fractured his skull in a motorcycle crash last year, he needed urgent medical attention—but there were no hospitals in his western Daraa province hometown that were equipped to save him.

Instead, he went to Israel.

“I needed immediate surgery,” Jaber tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani from his home in Daraa province. The journey to Israel was not easy. First, he rode in a car through the hills to a nearby opposition-run field hospital, on the Syrian side of the border.

“From there, a doctor decided I needed care at a larger hospital, and the Israeli army admitted me across the border at the Golan Heights,” Jaber says. Then, IDF soldiers transported him to the sprawling Ziv Medical Center, overlooking the Sea of Galilee in Israel’s north. “I stayed over there for more than three months.”

Since the war began, an estimated 2,600 Syrians from southwestern Daraa and Quneitra provinces have quietly received medical treatment in Israel—a country that, until recently, has not officially accepted Syrian refugees. Now, receiving emergency medical care in neighboring Israel “has become something normal for us,” Jaber says.

 Ziv Medical Center, in northern Israel. Photo courtesy of Ziv Medical Center.

Ziv Medical Center is open about its care of Syrian patients, stating on its website that doctors in the hospital “provide medical treatment to casualties including children, women and men suffering complex war injuries following the lack of medical options in Syria.”                                                                                              

Jaber’s neighbors back home in Daraa province aren’t without their suspicions, though. “Naturally, I raised a few eyebrows because I was accepted to go to Israel,” he says.

“But after the Syrian regime carried out massacres against unarmed civilians, many people accept that Israel is oftentimes the only place to go to receive adequate medical treatment.”

Q: Now that you are back in Syria, are you experiencing any social repercussions or harassment from having received treatment in Israel?

In reality, people here reject anything connected to the Israeli side and consider Israel an enemy occupying force. But after the Syrian regime carried out massacres against unarmed civilians, many people accept that Israel is oftentimes the only place to go receive adequate medical treatment.

Indeed, there is a medical deficit here, and there are no hospitals available to perform surgeries on people in critical condition.

Naturally, I raised a few eyebrows because I was accepted to go to Israel.

I don’t hide the fact that I went there, and I’m not afraid that my neighbors or other people will find out because this has become something normal for us that nobody else in my situation keeps secret.

I haven’t received any harassment from the people around me, especially because they know that going to Israel for treatment is often someone’s only chance to survive an illness or injury. We see no solution except to go there and receive treatment so we can live.

 Syrian opposition-affiliated Dr. Kamal al-Labwani visits a Syrian patient at Ziv Medical Center in September 2014. Photo courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Q: How did you get to the Ziv Medical Center?

The wounded and sick go through the border crossing between Israel and Syria at Burayqah [a town in western Quneitra province].

But before that, [we] go to a field hospital where doctors record the specifics of each patient’s condition.

The Israeli army then receives the injured and sick people at the border and transports them to the Ziv Medical Center.

Q: Many Syrians consider Israel an enemy. How did it feel for you to enter Israeli territory? Has your own opinion about Israel changed since you returned back home to Syria?

Syrian people consider Israel the number one enemy, and I share that viewpoint with them. Israel is an occupying force both in the Golan Heights and in Palestine.

To be honest, I never expected to go there in my life. When I entered the enemy’s territory I felt like a failure and a shame, despite having to go there in order to save my life. The rest of the Arab world has shuttered all of its borders to me and other Syrians, and everyone else has abandoned us.

However, my opinion about Israel has not changed. The reality is that Israel is an occupying force, and I don’t think anyone else with that opinion would change their view either given this reality.

Yes, it’s very likely that the goal of treating me in Israel had to do with propaganda because in the end, Israel does nothing to make peace and mend relations with us.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.