Searching for Missing Syrians in Israeli Hospitals

Ahmad Obeid
Syrian Journalist
August 23, 2021
It is a little known chapter of the Syrian war: the thousands of Syrians who were treated in Israeli hospitals. Some never returned. Omran is one of them. 

This investigation is published in partnership with the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ).

In 50 days Mamoun traveled 200 kilometer, on foot from the countryside west of Damascus, moving from one village to the next in the province of Quneitra, passing by Daraa, until he reached the opposition group responsible for transporting the wounded from southern Syria.

Mamoun (a pseudonym) was looking for his friend Omran, who had been transferred four months earlier to receive treatment in an Israeli hospital after being wounded in early 2014. Nothing had been heard of him since.  He is not alone. Several Syrians have gone missing after entering Israeli areas to receive medical treatment while opposition forces controlled the border regions of Daraa and Quneitra. 

While searching for the disappeared in the regime’s prisons is generally futile, the process is available to some. This is not the case for those who disappeared within Israel. Finding them is virtually impossible given the sensitivity of crossing the border into what is still regarded the biggest enemy of most Arab countries.

Treatment Across the Border

Mamoun used to command a militant faction affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. One day in January 2014, in the mountainous area between Khan Al-Sheih and Beit Jin west of Damascus, they fell into an ambush by a group that had vowed allegiance to ISIS.  

He and his men managed to escape unscathed, except for Omran, who was shot and fractured his femur (thighbone). Unfortunately, the nearby field hospitals were not able to perform surgery on the young man in his twenties, who had defected from the Syrian army to join the opposition, while his family remained in an area under regime control. 

The only way to save Omran was to amputate his leg, which Mamoun refused. He decided to send him to an Israeli hospital, using a group responsible for transporting the wounded over rocky smuggling routes.

Omran was taken from the village of Beit Jinn, via the town of Deir Makir, to Al-Danaja, a village near Daraa in the far south of Syria, where he was handed to yet another group before crossing into Israeli territory. This is where the last contact took place. Omran called Mamoun. 

“’We will cross the border tonight, a hospital agreed to receive my case, and they told me the trip wouldn’t be long,’” said Mamoun. “Those were the last words I heard from Omran before he crossed the border on January 16, 2014.” 

Israeli Field Hospital 

On February 16, 2013, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs first acknowledged the reception of seven wounded Syrians at the border.  

“Their reception was an isolated incident that took place for humanitarian reasons,” said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the time. “And this does not reflect any change in the Israeli position not wanting to interfere in the Syrian conflict. And this does not mean welcoming any possible influx of refugees.” 

However, on September 4, 2013, he revealed that the number of injured Syrians received by Israeli hospitals exceeded 300. 

He announced that a military field hospital in the Golan Heights had been established, which was equipped with, among other facilities, an operating room, x-ray machines, pharmacy and recovery rooms. Patients could receive treatment for up to a week, before – if necessary – being transferred to civilian hospitals within Israel.

How to Get There?

Immediately after declaring its intention to receive wounded Syrians, the Israeli authorities established “semi-official” crossing points: in the Muallaqa area south of Quneitra; in the Mashara area, which was supervised by a man named Abu Nidal al-Safuri; in the Jubata al-Khashab, called “Al-Shahar” and supervised by Abu Hudhayfah; in the Al-Bariqa area under the supervision of Abu Jaafar, and near Beit Jinn in Jabal al-Sheikh, supervised by Imad Moro, commander of the “grouping of forces.” 

They took on the task of sending medical files and reports of the injured to the Israeli side. Despite the justification by some opposition leaders that transferring the wounded to Israel was due to the closure of the Jordanian and Lebanese borders, Major General Salim Idris, former Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army refused to consider these coordinators with the Israeli side representatives of the Syrian opposition. 

“These people only represent themselves, and not the opposition,” Idris said by phone.

Munir

Munir (pseudonym), a 42-year-old resident of Jabal al-Sheikh, was wounded by shrapnel to the head, during a military campaign by the Syrian regime in November 2017. He was transferred to an Israeli hospital. It was a decision by the official in charge of the field hospital in the area, after he confirmed that the available medical facilities were unable to treat his condition. 

“I lost consciousness as soon as I heard the explosion,” said Munir. “I regained consciousness at the sound of the paramedics taking me to the field hospital in the area. Then I was put in an ambulance that traveled about three kilometers until we reached the Beit Jinn hospital. By then I was almost completely conscious and realized I had been hit by shrapnel.”

“The doctor in charge was a foreign national affiliated with Doctors Without Borders,” Munir continued. “Israel had sent him and an interpreter. He gave me a transit permit attached to a medical report, which I had to submit at the border crossing to be able to enter and receive treatment in an Israeli hospital.”

“I was taken to the medical point inside the border strip on the back of a mule that walked for about 2.5 kilometer before we arrived,” he said. “From there I was transferred by an Israeli ambulance to a field hospital in the Golan Heights, where I received a sedative injection. Later I was transferred to an Israeli hospital in another city.”

Operation Good Neighbor

The process of transferring Syrian wounded to Israeli hospitals continued to take place in secret, until the establishment of the Operation Good Neighbor in 2016. A medical team took over the task of organizing the files to transfer the wounded and launch medical programs to treat patients in opposition areas in southern Syria and women and children in Israeli hospitals. 

Due to the poor medical facilities in southern Syria, according to Operation Good Neighbor, hundreds of children suffering from diabetes or eye disease were treated in Israeli hospitals, and dozens of women went there to undergo C-sections. 

The writer of this investigation contacted 31-year-old human rights activist Bassam (pseudonym), who in recent years has searched for a number of Syrians who went missing on Israeli soil after they had entered for treatment.

During this process, Bassam said, he had contacted the founder of Operation Good Neighbor, Eyal Dror, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Dror told Bassam that the program established a medical unit within the zone guarded by the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces near the village of Al-Ma’ala in the countryside of Quneitra.  

Israeli medical staff, including doctors and nurses, had been transferred to run it, while another unit for obstetrics was opened in the Dweika region, which had been provided with advanced medical equipment, including incubators for newborns. 

Bassam cited Dror, whom the Syrians called Abu Yaqoub, saying that the sick and wounded would initially be transferred to the military field hospital in the Golan Heights. From there they would be taken to hospitals in the cities of Safed, Poria, Tiberias and Nahariya, which treated approximately 85 percent of all Syrian cases. Other, more serious cases were transferred to hospitals in Haifa and Tel Aviv hospitals, while four children were once transferred to the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. 

“The medical staff reviewed the risks of the surgical procedure I had to undergo, which may cause hemiplegia or lateral paralysis, or loss of hearing and vision,” said Mounir who had his surgery at the Nahariya Hospital. “So, I had to sign some papers to absolve the hospital from responsibility. After that, the supervising doctor, who introduced himself as Professor Sami Traboulsi, a Jewish doctor of Arab origin, told me that the success rate of the operation was over 90 percent.”

Mounir added that, the morning after, doctor Traboulsi informed him that the shrapnel had broken the skull bone and torn the water membrane, yet without leaking anything. 

Munir remained in the hospital for about a month and a half until his condition stabilized. Then he was transferred to the town of Majdal Shams first by a bus carrying many sick and injured, then by a military vehicle to the border strip. There he was handed over to Moro. This was the same crossing he had used to enter Israel.

6,000 Patients

According to Dror, the founder of Operation Good Neighbor, Israeli hospitals treated some 4,500 Syrians, including 1,400 women and children. Israeli army spokesman Avichai Adraee, however, claimed some 4,800 people Syrians were treated, half of whom were children. In addition, some 6,000 Syrians patients received treatment at a clinic with a Hebrew name meaning “refuge for the oppressed.” 

This clinic was established in cooperation with an international relief organization in the south of the Golan Heights. According to Bassam, some 6,000 Syrian patients have been treated here since August 2017. 

Humanitarian or Intelligence?

According to Dror, Operation Good Neighbor was established with a “religious and humanitarian motive only.” His country aimed to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian people in the region. He denied accusations that the program (also) had a political or intelligence goal, or was even used to finance armed factions. 

“Israel has been regularly supplying Syrian rebels near its border with cash, as well as food, fuel and medical supplies for years, a secret engagement in the enemy country’s civil war aimed at carving out a buffer zone populated by friendly forces,” the Wall Street Journal claimed on June 18, 2017.

The late Syrian writer and politician Michel Kilo told Daraj before his death that he thought Israel was receiving Syrians in its hospitals to play a role in the course of the conflict, and have a say in the political system to be established after the war had ended. 

“There is no doubt that good neighborliness is a goal to change the image of Israel in the eyes of the Syrians,” said Kilo, who was contacted by the author of this investigation. “But it is a secondary goal. It made a comparison possible between what the Syrian regime did, killing and abuse, and the treatment Israel provided. It was their way of saying that Israel is more merciful to the Syrian people than the regime.” 

“Israel provided treatment to the wounded of the opposition forces because it wanted the fighting to continue in Syria,” he continued. “If they had not received treatment, then the fighting would have probably stopped before.” Kilo strongly believed Israel carried out significant intelligence work through Operation Good Neighbor.

“The amounts that were spent on the program, the political gain, and the military breakthrough that resulted from it was far more valuable than the money spent on medical treatment,” he said. “There is no doubt that good neighborliness is a goal to change the image of Israel in the eyes of the Syrians,” said Kilo, who was contacted by the author of this investigation.

“But it is a secondary goal. It made a comparison possible between what the Syrian regime did, killing and abuse, and the treatment Israel provided. It was their way of saying that Israel is more merciful to the Syrian people than the regime.” 

“Israel provided treatment to the wounded of the opposition forces because it wanted the fighting to continue in Syria,” he continued. “If they had not received treatment, then the fighting would have probably stopped before.” Kilo strongly believed Israel carried out significant intelligence work through Operation Good Neighbor.

“The amounts that were spent on the program, the political gain, and the military breakthrough that resulted from it was far more valuable than the money spent on medical treatment,” he said.

White Helmets

Syrian journalist Abdul Jalil al-Saeed disagreed. A member of the Syrian political platform Astana, he said the aim was not intelligence. Israel does not need intelligence operations to know about the regime, as it is provided with information through open channels.

“The program is part of what Israel calls a humanitarian operation,” Al-Saeed told Daraj. “The regime did not leave the Syrians any choice other than seeking refuge in hospitals of the (supposed) enemy. Israel provided support in addition to opening a crossing for the civil defense group, the White Helmets, to cross from within Israel to Jordanian territory when the regime besieged the region a few years ago.”

“Israel was never a friend of the Syrian opposition,” Al-Saeed added. “In fact, it was keen on maintaining Assad’s rule for many years. Israeli politicians don’t see Assad as a problem. Rather they colluded with him to stay in power.”

Abu Nidal

Four months after his last contact with Omran, Mamoun decided to follow the same route as he had taken to reach the crossing into Israel. With him he carried a picture of his friend. 

Abu Nidal al-Safuri, the “official” at the crossing of Al-Ma’ala confirmed he had received Omran and had admitted him to the Israeli field hospital, together with another person from the Damascus countryside. According to him, he had been in relatively good condition and received medical treatment in Israel.

But talking about his fate was not the same two months later, when Mamoun returned to ask about Omran. This time he insisted on talking to his friend by phone, since all wounded were apparently allowed to carry their phones inside the hospitals. Many of them, unlike Oman, were in contact with their families. 

“After insisting to the point of a quarrel, Abu Nidal made a call with a person who spoke Arabic in the Lebanese dialect,” said Mamoun. “He said he was an officer in the Israeli army. Abu Nidal asked him about Omran. The officer responded that he was shot dead by an Israeli patrol while trying to escape from the hospital, accompanied by a Palestinian nurse.” 

“I don’t know what the job of that person is,” Mamoun said. “I don’t know if he was inside Israel or not. But seeing the way al-Safuri spoke, it seemed he was an important person.”

The author of this investigation contacted Abu Nidal al-Safuri by phone, and sent him several messages, but he refused to confirm or deny Mamoun’s testimony. 

Meanwhile human rights activist Bassam said that Dror, the founder of Operation Good Neighbor, had denied the authenticity of the news Mamoun had been told about his friend, emphasizing the hospitals that received the sick and wounded Syrians did not employ anyone with a Palestinian nationality.

He also said the Israeli authorities uphold strict security measures at the hospitals to prevent any kind of conflict between patients and Israeli civilians, and to prevent patients from leaving. Ambulances would transport the injured from the border to the hospital and return them in exactly the same way.

Omran is not the only person among Syrian patients in Israeli hospitals who went missing. The author of this investigation, through intersecting sources, was able to establish the identity of a thirty-year-old woman (M.R.), from the town of Jabbata al-Khashab in the countryside of Quneitra. 

She entered an Israeli hospital to undergo a liver transplantation. And, as is the case for Omran, nothing was heard from her again. Her family, however, refused to disclose any information about her due to fears related to having any connection with Israel, especially as the family lives in an area under control of the Syrian regime.

Bassam, the human rights activist, cited the Israeli officer about the possibility of the disappeared remaining in Israel. “He told me that some of the injured stayed for ten months, but eventually they all returned to Syria,” Bassam said. “97 percent completed their treatment and returned safely, while 3 percent died of their wounds.” 

“He emphasized that all bodies were transferred to Syria in coordination with the border officials,” Bassam continued. “None were buried in Israel. He also said the bodies were delivered immediately after their death. Unlike the injured, who would return once it was able to discharge a number of them at once.”

When asked about the possibility of finding data regarding the missing, Dror told Bassam: “All the wounded entered without identification papers, and most of them gave the medical staff fictitious names, while the hospitals used to return the reports with the patients in case a follow up was needed in Syria. So they did not keep any of them.” 

This was in contrast with his previous statement that his team kept records of hundreds of children who needed medical attention, Bassam claimed.

One of the doctors previously working in field hospitals in southern Syria said that the border crossing “officials” used to receive the bodies of the deceased and transfer them to the Al-Bariqa and Al-Rafid hospitals, which would notify their families.  

“We received about 15 bodies of unidentified young men and we buried them in cemeteries in the region after circulating their photos in local groups on social media,” he said. “None of them were identified.”

Dead Across the Border

Several parties familiar with the process of treating the wounded in Israel claimed the news Mamoun had received about the killing of Omran was not authentic. This prompted him to go back and search for his friend in another way. 

He started following the news regarding Syrian wounded in Israeli hospitals to try obtain clearer information. An incident took place on June 22, 2015. The Israeli authorities acknowledged the killing of a wounded Syrian during an attack by residents of the village of Majdal Shams in the occupied Golan Heights on the car he was traveling in.

This was followed by statements from an Israeli police spokeswoman saying the authorities had arrested 12 people from the village, who all had obtained Israeli citizenship, on suspicion of taking part in the attack on the ambulance. This information possibly created a whole different reason for Omran’s disappearance.

The Nazareth Central Court on November 24, 2016, sentenced Amal Abu Saleh to seven years and eight months in prison for the unintentional killing of a wounded Syrian, while Bashira Mahmoud was sentenced to 22 months.

However, the Israeli Prison Authorities on January 9, 2020 released Abu Saleh, along with Sedky Al-Maqt, in a goodwill gesture following the return of the remains of Israeli soldier Zacharia Baumel through Russian mediation. Baumel had been killed during the 1982 Lebanon invasion. 

Yet, upon verifying the identity of the wounded person killed during the aforementioned attack, it was found he was a young man in his twenties named Muhammad Khalil from the city of Qatana. He had been hit by shrapnel in the stomach on June 15, 2015, transferred to first Quneitra and then an Israeli hospital.

A relative of the young man told Daraj that Khalil’s family demanded the accused of killing Mohamad to be put on trial. They filed a lawsuit after appointing a lawyer from Majdal Shams, who holds Israeli citizenship. However, the court refused to grant them any compensation and ended the case with the aforementioned ruling. The relative confirmed that Mohamed’s body was handed over to his family through the Al-Buraiqah crossing. 

Omran being killed the same way inside Israel was the most likely reason for his disappearance and the lack of any news about him. But the Israeli authorities have consistently denied that any other killings occurred on their territory, which was confirmed by Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli fellow at the Newlines Institute. 

The Fate of the Stranded

26-year-old Moaz (pseudonym) is one of the Syrian injured who got stranded in an Israeli hospital following the agreement between the Syrian regime and opposition factions in the Quneitra governorate. The deal stipulated the resettlement  of militants, and those who opposed the agreement, to the opposition-controlled north of Syria.

“None of us knew what our fate would be at that time,” said Moaz. “We were about fifty young men. We were stuck between a country that did not accept us after our treatment ended and a governorate under the control of the Syrian regime, while most of us got injured in battles against the regime. Our file was not addressed in the agreement.”

“At one point the hospitals started to return us to Syria, according to an agreement concluded between the Israeli side and the Syrian Red Crescent under supervision of the United Nations,” he said. “We did not know what its content was. But we were transferred first to the Golan, and from there into Syrian territory where we were handed over to the UN in Quneitra. They in turn handed us over to the Syrian Red Crescent.”

The latter handed them over to the reconciliation committees in the region, which transferred them to the military security detachment in neighboring Hamidiya. All wounded who returned were registered as “injured as a result of bombing by armed groups.

According to Moaz, the last wounded Syrian in an Israeli hospital returned home in August 2018, after a treatment that lasted about 8 months. He was readmitted through the Jabbata al-Khashab crossing in coordination with a member of the reconciliation committee, Muhammad Bilal, and town mayor Muhammad Mazen.

The disappearance of Omran and the woman in her thirties must be seen in light of the chaos in the region, the return of the Syrian regime, the silence it imposed on cases of disappearance or killing among opposition forces, in addition to the bodies that were received from Israel and buried without being identified. It introduces the possibility of other cases of disappearance that have been lost amidst the dead and missing of the ongoing war.

“I approached every international human rights or humanitarian body and did not receive a single piece of information about Omran’s fate from any of them, including the International Red Cross,” said Mamoun. “I may have given up hope of finding him alive, but I will keep searching to find out about him. I wish I saw him in my dreams so he could tell me something that would show me the way.”  

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