NAHARIYA, Israel - In northern Israel, wounded Syrians are finding a strange sanctuary. Just a few miles from the Golan Heights, doctors have treated more than 70 patients from Israel’s arch-enemy Syria so far this summer.
They are all very badly hurt, with gunshot wounds and blast injuries, and receiving life-saving treatment, doctors say.
"Most of them arrive unconscious," said Masad Barhoum, clinical director at Western Galilee Medical Center. "When they wake up and find that they are in Israel they are anxious and afraid. We don't ask them any questions, we just do what we can to make them feel comfortable."
Doctors and nurses do their work behind blast walls and air-tight doors, and they try not to let politics, or war, get in their way.
"When you see a child who's burned and crying for her mother," Barhoum said. "What is she guilty of? We help whoever comes through the door.”
At least 100,000 people have been killed in the two-and-a-half-year conflict, and every day hundreds struggle with injuries, according to aid workers. Doctors at the center say their Syrian patients are brought to the border with Israel because much-needed medical facilities no longer exist in their war-ravaged homeland. It's a last resort.
Syria and Israel are old foes. For people to throw themselves and their loved ones on the mercy of the Israeli border guards is a sure a sign of how desperate they are. Seeking help across the border may prompt harsh consequences when patients and their families go home.
Many of the wounded are fighters, but some are children.
“I brought my girl here because she was hit by a sniper's bullet," said a weeping woman as she tended her 13-year-old. "The hospital in my town was destroyed. They have saved her here, but now I am afraid to go back. We will be marked."
The Israeli army delivers the wounded to the hospital, in between preparations for a possible attack from Syria or Hezbollah, Lebanese allies of President Bashar Assad.
If the United States and its allies choose to strike over allegations Syria used chemical weapons on civilians, Assad might retaliate against Israel, America's greatest ally in the region. Israeli intelligence doesn't think that is very likely at this stage, but the missile defense batteries along Israel's northern borders have been reinforced.
In Tel Aviv, people look north and see a dictator who appears to be capable of anything, who might be feeling backed into a corner and could lash out. And given the nature of the atrocity Assad is accused of committing, people wait in line for gas masks at the post office. The prospect of being attacked with poison gas is a fearful one anywhere, but for a people haunted by the Holocaust there is a special determination to survive, and respond.
If Israel does come under attack of any kind, it will not simply weather the storm. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has warned that his country will “respond forcefully.”
Israel's defense forces are on high alert. Its air force pilots are on very short notice to move -- they now have to be in their cockpits within seconds of the call, rather than minutes.
An Israeli attack on Syria would likely be large scale, and Assad's allies in Lebanon and Iran would feel bound to respond. This would be one path by which a “punishment action” by the Western powers might quickly turn into a regional conflict. In the White House, it's the nightmare scenario.
First published August 29 2013, 3:55 PM