As the world’s capitals and leaders discuss how to respond to last week’s chemical weapons attack in Damascus – the most repugnant in a series of atrocities committed in the war that is raging in Syria – it can be easy to lose sight of the daily human toll this conflict is extracting. Though Damascus is only some two hundred kilometres from Jerusalem (or shorter than the distance between Canberra and Sydney, as I tell my Australian friends), the conflict in Syria can feel like a world away.
But in the town of Safed in the north of Israel, better known as one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities, the front-line of the conflict in Syria feels very close. At Ziv Medical Centre, without fanfare or publicity, they are treating a steady and growing stream of wounded Syrians from the conflict. Some 72 Syrian patients have been admitted to Ziv Medical Centre since February.
When I visited earlier this week, 15 hospital beds were being used to treat such victims, the youngest a girl of only eight. They have harrowing stories and horrific injuries. Suffering from shrapnel and bullet wounds, burns and crush injuries, they have somehow managed to limp to the border with Israel, from where they are then transferred to Ziv Medical Centre. On admission they are malnourished, fatigued and traumatised. Many have lost family members. But they are immensely relieved. If they had remained in Syria, the extent of their injuries means most would have died or been left permanently incapacitated.
At Ziv Hospital they get the best medical care on offer to any Israeli, from surgeons and physicians who are quite literally the best in their field, having authored textbooks on the treatment of injuries from armed conflict. On the day I visited I saw how doctors had managed to save the leg of an 8-year old girl from amputation by use of some of the most advanced surgical techniques and injury treatment protocols. A 15-year old girl whose leg was amputated in Syria had been fitted with a prosthetic limb. Against the odds, the doctors at Ziv had managed to save her other leg. This girl was now learning to walk again, taking her first steps.
Arabic-speaking doctors, nurses and social workers are all available to communicate with the Syrian patients and help ease their anxieties. They are provided time and space to recover and rehabilitate and supplied with basic provisions, including clothes and toiletries donated by generous residents from Safed. The multi-ethnic staff at Ziv Hospital – drawn from the Jewish, Arab and Druze communities – reflect the diversity of Israel. They are dedicated and compassionate professionals driven by a profound sense of humanitarianism. They do not stop to ask the patient’s nationality or religion as she is wheeled into the emergency theatre in a critical condition. They simply do their utmost to save life and treat injury.
Ziv Hospital is a profound example of humanity and decency at its most compelling. It is Israel at its very best, and a side of Israel that the world too rarely sees or acknowledges. With all the tales of human woe and misery that continue to emerge from Syria, such small stories of hope should be cherished.
Dave Sharma is the Australian ambassador to Israel.