Salman Zarka, a physician and retired colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, never imagined he’d be managing a team treating wounded Syrians.
A career military officer and now director of Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat, Zarka had always thought of Syria as the “sworn enemy.” But ongoing cooperation between the IDF and the hospital has meant that for several years Zarka has been supervising a team of doctors, nurses and social workers helping Syrians who have come to the Israeli border seeking medical help.
“This is our mission, and this is our duty — to save lives,” he said.
Zarka will be in San Francisco on Sunday, Oct. 29 to talk about his work as part of a fundraising gala dinner put on by the Bay Area chapter of Friends of the IDF, a 36-year-old national nonprofit that provides for the wellbeing of those who serve in the IDF and their families.
“People think of IDF as a military power, but we are to a very large extent a humanitarian power,” said Dr. Nik Wolfson, chairman of the FIDF’s Bay Area board of directors and a major in the reserves.
Zarka should have a lot of interesting things to talk about at the dinner. After serving in the IDF medical corps for 25 years and heading the IDF’s department of health services for 18 months, he was named director-general of the Ziv Medical Center three years ago — becoming the first Druze to head an Israeli hospital.
The Druze community is an Arabic-speaking religious minority found in Israel, Syria and Lebanon.
His medical aid project started in 2013 when seven Syrians made it to a field hospital on the Golan Heights.
“At that time, we decided — although it’s legitimate to close a border with a sworn enemy — we decided to extend humanitarian aid with Syria in their time of need,” Zarka said.
At first, the IDF set up an emergency medical center on the border to help Syrians fleeing the civil war. Syrian patients were often operated on immediately at the border field hospital. They were then evacuated to nearby civilian facilities like Ziv and, after time to recover, were returned to the border. “Since then we treated in Israel about 3,500 Syrian people,” Zarka said.
The operation has increased and streamlined since those first days. Zarka said that because it can take up to several days for Syrians even to reach the border, it became apparent that there was no need for medical care for very urgent cases — because people with serious ailments wouldn’t even be able to make it there.
“We do not need an operation theater right on the border,” Zarka said.
Instead, the field physicians became focused on handling immediate needs, and then sending the patients on to Ziv.
People think of IDF as a military power, but we are to a very large extent a humanitarian power.
At Ziv, under Zarka’s direction, Syrian patients get help not only from doctors, but from social workers, as well, all fluent in Arabic. He said the Syrians are treated with the same protocols as Israelis — including requiring consent for treatment — and the Israeli government picks up the tab.
Zarka said Israel’s standards were higher than international law demands for “humanitarian” medical aid, which focuses only on saving lives and not on quality-of-life future considerations.
Zarka added that since those first days, the needs of the Syrians patients have changed. “When it first started, usually we were treating war casualties,” he said. “Very complicated.”
Now, with the mass exodus of Syrians — including doctors — from the country, the Israeli doctors are seeing more basic problems. Recently, for example, a girl with diabetes was brought to the hospital, Zarka said. She and her mother stayed three months while she was stabilized, then she was taken back to the border — with a supply of glucose and instructions for her mother on how to use it.
“We are, maybe, the [Syrian] medical system, because they have no alternative in their country,” he said.
Zarka admitted that, at first, it was strange for him, a longtime military man, to see the Syrians as patients and not as enemies. But he said it was the same for the Syrians receiving treatment.
One Syrian man, for example, told Israeli medical officials he had looked to see if the Israeli “devils” had “tails and horns,” as he’d been told, Zarka said. In the end, the patient said he’d found more humanity in the Israeli hospital than from the Assad regime, Zarka added.
The Friends of the IDF gala will also host the first woman combat paramedic to cross into Lebanon, and a mother of two IDF soldiers who died while serving.
Also speaking will be Paralympic tennis gold medalist Noam Gershony, who was injured after his helicopter crashed in Lebanon, killing his co-pilot. S.F.-based Israeli diplomat Shlomi Kofman, his country’s consul general serving the Pacific Northwest region, also will attend.
With the conflict in Syria ongoing, Zarka doesn’t see the steady stream of Syrian patients ending any time soon. But he continues to see the value in a humanitarian mission that is hopefully not only healing bodies, but also hearts.
“I hope that this is a small seed that later will make a different future in this area,” he said.