Saving Syrian Lives…writes Vic Alhadeff

November 21, 2013 by Vic Alhadeff
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Israeli hospitals have treated 500 Syrians wounded in the civil war. Vic Alhadeff visited one of those hospitals last week and spoke with a Syrian patient.

Last Wednesday, Layla (not her real name) gave birth to a healthy baby boy. With a mop of black hair and a tiny cherubic face, he weighed in at 2.5kgs. She named him Ali.

What is newsworthy about this otherwise-commonplace occurrence is that Layla – who is 26, a Sunni Muslim living in penury with her husband and six children in a Syrian village near the border with Israel – had her baby in Ziv Hospital in the northern Israeli town of Tsfat.

Last week I accompanied Australian journalists to the hospital to learn about the growing phenomenon whereby Israeli hospitals are giving life-saving medical care to hundreds of Syrians who have been wounded in Syria’s bloody civil war, yet whose country remains a sworn enemy of Israel.

Speaking through two interpreters – Arabic-Hebrew, Hebrew-English – Layla sat protectively alongside her day-old baby while tentatively answering questions about her dire situation.

Syrian forces had bombed her home, she told us, forcing her family to find refuge in a tent with no water, electricity or sanitation. In desperate need of professional care because her unborn baby was facing the wrong direction, she was refused admission at a local clinic and would have died had she not received expert assistance.

She walked to the border to an area controlled by Syrian rebels, was met by an Israel Defence Force ambulance and ferried to Ziv, where a Caesarian-section procedure was performed. Her husband is the only person in Syria who knows she was in Israel, which means she will likely destroy Ali’s birth certificate.

Initially fearful at the reception she would be given in Israel, she readily admitted to being greatly surprised at the care and concern with which she has been treated. Layla and Ali will be driven back to the border by an IDF ambulance, with a supply of clothes, shoes and toys donated by Israelis for Syria’s war-wounded.

Dr OScar Embon

Dr OScar Embon

Built in 1910, Ziv Hospital has 320 beds, 1200 staff and five operating theatres. On Saturday, February 17 its director, Dr Oscar Embon, received a call from the IDF to say it was bringing in seven severely-injured Syrians. It has since treated 177 Syrians, including two women and four children, most of the patients injured by bullets, shrapnel or collapsing buildings, causing fractures, burns and lacerations, some leading to amputation. The youngest patient to date was a three-year-old who arrived with her mother, both suffering shrapnel wounds and fractures. Last week two baby boys were delivered.

The hospital has a 90 percent occupancy rate, half of the beds in its Intensive Care Unit occupied by Syrians, whose presence is also putting pressure on its operating theatres.

The orthopaedic department is headed by world-ranked trauma injury specialist Dr Alex Lerner, while psychological support and social workers are provided and an Arab-speaking clown visits the hospital to work with children. Israeli citizens of the Galilee donate prostheses, clothes and toys.

Over 500 Syrians have received treatment at Israeli hospitals, Ziv absorbing the largest number because of its proximity to the border – 12 to 15 a week at a total cost so far of $3.8 million – while triage is carried out in IDF field hospitals.

Dr Michael Harari

Dr Michael Harari

Ziv has to balance its treatment of Syrians with its obligation to Israelis, Dr Embon stressed. Most of the Syrian patients express gratitude for the care they receive and wish to return home, he added; politics doesn’t enter the equation.

A key member of Ziv’s team of specialists is Dr Michael Harari, a graduate of Melbourne’s Mount Scopus College. A paediatrician with a speciality in emergency medicine, his grandparents were from Syria – a touch of irony, given that he is now treating Syrian children – and his parents from Egypt, which means he is able to converse with his patients in Arabic.

Most of the wounds he treats are blast injuries caused by shrapnel which has entered numerous parts of the children’s bodies, he said. Having practised medicine for 34 years, they are the worst injuries he has ever encountered – and all the more galling because they are inflicted by human hand.

While the humanitarian care which Ziv and other Israeli hospitals is extending to Syrians has attracted a modicum of attention from CNN and other news outlets, it largely remains an untold story. Equally importantly, perhaps Syrian hostility towards Israel will eventually dissipate. One family at a time.


Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. He accompanied the Board of Deputies-AIJAC Journalists’ Study Mission to Israel. The Board of Deputies Journalists Mission is supported by the JCA Haberman Kulawicz Wolanski Fund

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