Despite years of fighting between Syria and Israel, some Israelis have prioritized acting in the name of humanity. Medical staff in northern Israel have begun providing safety and health for Syrian citizens, filling a gap left by Syrians’ own government. As The Century Foundation’s Morton Abramowitz has suggested, “if we are not going to save Syria, we can do much better to save a dying people.” That is exactly what Israel is trying to do.
Since 2012, approximately 150 Syrians have been taken in by the Israeli military, who carry the wounded over the border to Northern Israel. Even though Syria and Israel have been enemies since Israel became a nation-state, this new occurrence reveals people from warring countries can help each other in times of need.
Hospitals in northern Israel have admitted several Syrians wounded in the civil war, which has been going on since March 2011. During the past two years, the UN has reported that over 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the Syrian conflict by the Assad regime and the opposition forces. Both sides have brutally killed and tortured each other while the world has watched. Syrians have fled the country leaving their families, friends and ways of life because they are afraid for their safety.
Not only are Syrians in the middle of a civil war, they are also threatened by the terrorist groups and foreign fighters who have crossed Syria’s border. Most Syrians who are wounded or killed are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – and they’re usually left for dead. Fortunately for the wounded, Israeli soldiers have begun carrying Syrians over the border to various hospitals in Israel’s northern region.
A Volatile History
Israel and Syria have never exactly been friends. The countries fought against each other in three major wars (1948, 1967 and 1973), and are technically still at war with each other. In 2006, Syria wanted to enter the Lebanese War by supporting Hezbollah, a militant group and political party that is based in Lebanon. Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, permitted Iran, a long-term supporter of Hezbollah, to send supplies to the militant group through Syrian territory.
Assad claims the Israeli government has always avoided peace in the past. During the Syrian civil war, Israel reported Syrian tanks have entered Israeli territory. There have also been incidents of cross-border shootings. In addition, Israel launched air strikes within Syrian territory targeting weapons sites and military facilities.
Faces of Humanity
Fatima is a Syrian woman taken in by an Israeli hospital with her daughter after a bomb shattered their legs. She praises the Israeli medical staff who helped them after the explosion. “They care about us and have shown us [more] respect” than the Syrian government, Fatima said. “I was in a daze, and don’t know how I got here or who brought me. I remember people picking me up and helping me, and the next thing I knew, I was in an Israeli hospital.” Another Syrian girl who received a prosthetic leg from Ziv Hospital in Safed wished the Israeli people a happy New Year while hoping for peace in the Middle East in the near future.
Israeli doctors don’t worry about past wars or grudges between Syrians and Israelis. Right now, it’s all about helping fellow human beings. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from. We take [wounded Syrians] in and treat them with compassion. It’s important to give medical aid regardless – this is a principle of the medical profession,” said Dr. Calin Shapira, head of Ziv Hospital.
Dr. Shukri Kassis, a plastic surgeon at Ziv, states most Syrians are afraid when they first enter Israeli hospitals due to the history of conflict between the two countries. “They were so surprised at the beginning. It’s a very new experience for them. They have a totally different idea about what’s going on here in Israel. What they know about us is totally different from the reality. I remember [one patient] refused to talk to me on the first day. She said ‘my father told me not to say anything.’ Now, we are friends,” said Dr. Kassis. “It makes her feel more comfortable when the medical staff and soldiers speak Arabic just like her.”
Even though Syrian and Israeli governments fought against each other and helped each other’s foes, the civilians of these countries can look past their differences as traditional enemies fighting against an existential crisis in Syria. Though most Syrians are Arabs and many Israelis are Jews, the decades of war between them no longer needs to be an obstacle to understanding each other on a basic human level.
The United States should view these acts of humanity as a means to reach across cultural and religious divides and connect these two opposing sides. The Obama Administration should encourage volunteer projects where both Arabs and Israelis work together throughout different parts of the world.
Another option is to create educational programs allowing students of all ages to learn together in a classroom environment. The projects should be managed by the United Nations. While the UN has run various programs such as this, including fellowships, there should be specific programs arranging for Arabs and Israelis.
These programs would be great platforms for Arabs and Israelis to get to know each other. International students who spend time working side-by-side or learning in the classroom together find ways to better relate to one another (for example in the Peace Corps or with Fulbright Fellowships). By communicating with and understanding each other, Israelis and Arabs become aware of these misguided stereotypes, which might influence the leaders of both the Arab world and Israel.