GOLAN HEIGHTS – Syrians wounded in their country’s three-year civil war have recently been crossing their country’s southern frontier to seek medical care in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel and Syria remain technically at war, and recovering the Golan Heights — occupied by Israel since the war of June 1967 — is a shared goal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition. A roadside bomb targeting an Israeli jeep wounded four soldiers near the Golan town of Majdal Shams on Tuesday. Still, Israel’s Military Medical Corp has opened its doors to the most seriously injured Syrian patients.
Col. Dr. Salman Zarka says he “swore to give medical assistance to people in need” and decided to take on a humanitarian project by helping set up a field hospital close to the frontier, giving patients with life-threatening injuries a chance to survive.
Zarka says some of those crossing are Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire. But more often than not, they receive rebel and government fighters unable to find substantial care on their side of the frontier.
“I can remember Ibrahim,” says Zarka. “Ibrahim used to be an Assad regime officer. He told us very clearly, he used to think we are inhuman and now that we saved his life, he thinks different.”
Zarka believes medicine can change people and feels privileged to help those he always learned were his enemy. A Palestinian Druze citizen of Israel, he speaks Arabic with his patients and does what he can to make them feel comfortable and welcome.
The Israeli paramedics patrol the border and provide treatment for casualties they encounter. Once Syrians are evaluated, some are sewn up and treated on the ground. Others are taken to a makeshift field hospital for basic surgery and recovery. But patients who require extensive surgery are sent to a civilian hospital, Ziv Medical Center, in the Israeli town of Tsfat, about an hour away.
Abul Naser (his name was altered for privacy) needed extensive surgery on his legs and was in the Golan Heights for months undergoing treatment. He tells Al Jazeera he was on his motorcycle en route to buy bread for his family when a car crashed into him late at night in Darra. He was rushed to a first-aid station, but the bones in his legs were poking through the skin — too damaged for him to go home. He had to go to a hospital, but getting beyond military checkpoints in Syria, he says, was far too dangerous.
“The military at the checkpoint would kill me,” says Naser. “My situation would be worse than wounded. They think anyone who is wounded was in the war, fighting with the FSA,” he added, referring to the rebel Free Syria Army.
Naser decided that crossing to the Israeli-controlled side was his best option.
When Al Jazeera went to meet Naser, he was under anesthesia and being rolled into his last surgery, a skin graft for his leg. He didn’t have a kneecap and would likely need more surgery, but Dr. Shukri Qaisis says Naser would be in good enough condition to be sent home.
Qaisis, a humanitarian aid doctor who has traveled around the world performing surgeries, says that the wounds he’s seeing from the Syrian conflict are often “complicated trauma, very tough cases” involving exposed organs.
But physical traumas are not the only challenges the doctors face; they realize that for many Syrians, seeking care from the Israelis is a dangerous venture. “They are afraid,” says Qaisis. “We are the enemy.”
But for him, it doesn’t matter who the patient is. He is committed to treating fighters and civilians both. And, he says, patients are grateful for their treatment.
Naser agrees, saying he received the “best treatment” and respect. He says that the Syrian regime told him for 40 years Israel was the enemy but that now he sees people who “want to live and do not want war.”
Now that it’s time for Naser to go home, Qaisis hopes he will return to Ziv when he is ready for more surgery. But there is no guarantee. After patients are well enough to leave, the Israeli military picks them up, takes them back to the Syrian border and sends them home.
Qaisis believes direct interactions between people could improve relations between the countries. The Syrian war is more difficult than he wants think about. “I don’t know which god asked them to fight,” he says. “No religion asks for such a thing like this.” He believes medicine can heal rifts between people and hopes for peace, which, he says, “seems so far.”
As Naser boards a Israeli military ambulance, brace around his knee and moving with a walker, he says he feels “utmost happiness.”
“I am going back to my country,” says Naser, who doesn’t know where exactly he will go or whether he will find his family. “I would like to thank all those that helped me.”