A little more than 150 kilometres from Damascus, a Syrian rebel lies in a hospital bed, an Israeli sentry at the door. Nearby a Syrian mother sits next to her daughter, shot in the back by a sniper.
What started this year as a trickle is now a steady flow of Syrians, scores of civilians and fighters wounded in the civil war and being discreetly brought across the Golan frontline into Israel – a country with which Syria is formally still at war.
For all the advantages it brings of excellent medical care, it is a journey fraught with risk for those who fear the wrath of President Bashar al-Assad’s Government.
“There was one man, where I am from, who was treated in Israel. The regime forces killed his three brothers,” the teenage girl’s mother said. “They will kill my sons and my husband if they ever find out we were here.”
For fear of retribution back home, Syrians in Israeli clinics who spoke to Reuters asked not to be named.
The woman’s 16-year-old daughter, whose wounds have left her paralysed in both legs, lies stone-faced as an Israeli hospital clown juggles and dances, trying in vain to raise a smile.
For the past month, she has been at the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, about 80km west of the UN-monitored ceasefire line in the Golan Heights that has kept Israeli and Syrian forces apart since they fought in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
A few weeks ago, a battle was raging in her home village between Assad’s forces and rebel fighters. There was a lull, her mother said, and the girl opened the front door to see if it was safe out. Her aunt told her to shut it again because there was a sniper in the house opposite. As she did so, he shot her.
“I saw her falling to the floor, in all the blood,” her mother recounted. “I was terrified I was going to lose her. I said ‘Please, I don’t want to bury my children one by one’.”
The girl was rushed to a rebel field hospital, where Syrian medics removed a bullet lodged in a lung. But they could not provide the further care she needed. The girl, they said, should be taken across the border, to Jordan or to Israel.
“We would get Israeli television channels in my village. I knew that medicine here is advanced,” the mother said. “In Jordan I would have to pay for it and we do not have enough money. Here it is free.”
The woman declined to say exactly how she and her daughter reached the Israeli lines in the Golan so that soldiers could transport them to hospital. She did say that Syrian rebel fighters helped them reach the area of the Israel-Syria front.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war which began in 2011. According to the UN, more than two million refugees have fled the country, most to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey. Of the population of about 20 million, one-third is displaced, either inside or outside Syria.
Israel refuses to accept refugees from a country with which it is still technically at war. But it does provide medical care and, always concerned to counter the negative image it has in most of the Arab world, it has made no secret of doing so.
The Nahariya hospital has treated more than 80 Syrian patients since March, around the time the Israeli military began taking in wounded Syrians who reach its lines seeking help.
The army does not reveal how the Syrians are brought over, nor whether it coordinates with rebels or others who deliver them into Israeli hands. “This is a very sensitive issue and people’s lives are at stake,” a military spokeswoman said.
UN military observers based along the 75-kilometre ceasefire line did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and much of its population, many of them from the Druze sect, resettled beyond the ceasefire line in Syria. A small Arab Druze community remained under Israeli occupation and has kept in contact with relatives inside Syria.
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