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14 Aug 2017

INSIGHT

To escape the cold of Canberra, my wife and I headed off to the Middle-East – Israel, including the West Bank, and to Petra in Jordan.

When I first visited Israel more than a decade ago, the on-going conflict between Syria and Israel was an ever-present threat. These two bordering nations have been in a formal state of war since 1948. They have fought three wars and countless skirmishes. Syria still does not recognise Israel and if you have an Israeli passport (or even a visa stamp) you are denied entry into Syria.

On my previous trip I travelled up to the Golan Heights. This is a disputed region, two-thirds under Israeli control with the remainder under Syrian rule. A buffer zone is designed to maintain peace.  I looked (with trepidation and from a safe distance) from one warring country into another.

The Syrian civil war has, however, drastically reshaped the relationship between the Syrian and Israeli peoples, a realignment that has come about mostly through medical and humanitarian aid.

Over the past year, media reports have surfaced about the extent of medical aid and treatment being provided to Syrian refugees fleeing the horrific and barbaric civil war that has destroyed a once beautiful country. My wife travelled to Syria just before the war erupted and described a magnificent and mostly peaceful nation, steeped in a rich history, and one that warmly embraced visitors.

Recently, the New York Times reported on the extent of Israel’s Operation Good Neighbor which operates (literally) along the Israeli-Syrian boundary in the Golan Heights. The Times detailed how Syrian doctors (surely the bravest of people) coordinate the care refugees need, which is then provided by Israeli medical teams. Working with the Free Syrian Army, patients (and their families) are transferred across the military lines to Israeli hospitals or medical centres via military ambulance.  Some wounded go directly to hospitals in northern Israeli towns.

It is reported that Israel has treated more than 4,000 Syrians injured in the civil war. The costs of treating Syrian refugees is split between the Israeli Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Health, and by the treating hospitals. The cost runs into the millions.

Israeli officials estimate that their aid is reaching about 200,000 Syrians, including displaced families housed in tent cities on the international border. They are also funding and equipping medical clinics.

One of the inspirational people behind the medical relief efforts is Georgette Bennett, founder of the Multifaith Alliance and a daughter of Holocaust survivors. The Alliance’s mission is to “raise funds to provide humanitarian relief to Syrian war victims, heighten awareness of the growing dangers of inadequate responses to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, and plant the seeds for future stability in the region by fostering people-to-people engagement”.

Through the efforts of Georgette Bennett, the Multifaith Alliance is helping the most desperate people flee one of the cruellest conflicts the modern world has witnessed. Ms Bennett told media that the cooperation between Israel and Syria is “a great glimmer of hope coming out of this tragedy”.

What is most inspiring is how medical aid and treatment is breaking down decade old animosities and hatreds. On the Multifaith Alliance website are stories from Syrian refugees.

“It was a very big shock to me. Syrians were brought up to fear Israelis as the devil who wants to kill us and take our land,” said a Syrian humanitarian worker.

One refugees summed the situation up this way:

"Israel is doing exactly what it must do. It is not taking part in the war, but is helping wounded Syrians who need help. And it's not only the government. Israelis are helping Syrian refugees in Jordan, in Greece, Serbia, North America. No one would have blamed the Jews and the Israelis if they had said it was not their problem. That is, by the way, what many Arabs and Arab countries did. The Gulf States, for example, shut their doors to Syrians – and these are the countries that call themselves friends of Syria."

Another said: “It has struck a chord with a lot of Syrians. This is supposed to be our enemy.”

I can only hope that the bloody Syrian conflict ends soon and the plight of Syrian refugees is recognised world-wide. I also hope that other Middle-East countries take Israel’s approach and provide medical and humanitarian aid to those injured and affected by this war.  

SIMON TATZ
AMA DIRECTOR, PUBLIC HEALTH

 


Published: 14 Aug 2017