Fortified Hospitals and Safe Havens

Living in Northern Israel close to the Lebanese and Syrian borders, and being a patient in three of the biggest hospitals here, has afforded me the opportunity to learn more about the unique and special roles our medical centers play to this region.

The Western Galilee Medical Center in Nahariyya lies just 10km (6 miles) from the Lebanese border to the North – a 10 minute trip by car. During the Second Lebanese War in 2006, it sustained direct rocket hits. Miraculously, no-one was injured, as it was the first underground, fully fortified hospital in Israel. WGMC has 722 beds and a staff of 3000, caring for 600,000 residents of the surrounding communities. 50% of the patients are Jewish; 50% non-Jews. They specialize in neurosurgery, hand surgery and muscle-facial surgery. There is also a completely sealed-off emergency and triage unit, and twelve fortified labor and delivery rooms. To date, over a million patients have been serviced. There are underground facilities capable of withstanding both bomb attacks as well as chemical and biological weapons. They are equipped for every situation from war to natural disasters such as earthquakes and violent storms.

Dr. Massad Barchoum, CEO of Western Galilee explained their motto,”Adam l’adam, adam.” The closest translation from the Hebrew is “People who help people are human beings.” He stated that “It was a very important humanitarian decision to care for people who think we are the enemy. They come to us and we take care for them (sic) from the psychological point of view and the medical point of view.” 70% of the Syrians coming in from the war across the Golan come to WGMC for treatment. No questions are asked. Dr. Barchoum went on to say, ” I don’t ask too much questions (sic), but you can see the feelings that every time they come to us, they say ‘we love Israel’ and ‘we love  you for taking care of us.’ But what they will say when they return home, we don’t know.”

It can be chilling to think that we will ever have need of a completely fortified hospital here, but Rambam Hospital in Haifa is the world’s largest and most advanced. The Sammy Ofer Fortified Underground Emergency Hospital was begun right after the Second War with Lebanon after over 60 rockets landed within a half a mile of the campus. The hospital continued to treat patients while under fire. $20million was donated by the late philanthropist, Sammy Ofer to begin construction.

It was a monumental task. Rambam lies directly on the Mediterranean Coast. The foundation, which is several meters below sea level, required the pumping out of millions of gallons of sea water and sealing it off with over 7,000 cubic meters of concrete. A parking structure, holding 15,000 vehicles over 3 levels was built. This underground parking lot can empty out and be converted into a 2000 bed, fully functioning hospital in just over 48 hours. Thick cement walls and ceilings with tens of thousands of ventilation and filtration units containing carbon and HEPA filters were put in place. During an emergency situation, the lot is emptied, a thorough power wash and sanitization takes place, and beds, portable toilets, medical gas supplies, generators, imaging systems, and the like are rolled down. Food and water and brought in to last over three days. Both Kosher and Halal meals are included. Power outlets, air conditioning and heating systems can be seen in the ceilings and floors.

Because of a quick and unpredictable escalation of hostility from surrounding Lebanon and Syria, this is all necessary for  medical services to continue smoothly. This fortified hospital not only can survive chemical and biological warfare, but is equipped to serve as an isolation unit in case of a severe pathological outbreak. Rambam Hospital in Haifa boasts a completely secure triage and ER unit, operating theaters, ICU, labor & delivery, and dialysis ward as well as a unique decontamination unit. Never again will the safety of patients and hospital staff be placed in jeopardy!

Ziv (Seiff) Hospital in Tsfat also has a fully operational, fully fortified unit, secure against both warfare and natural disasters. With 30 cm (12 in) reinforced concrete walls, it houses several operating rooms, and a specialized pediatrics unit. Ziv is usually the first port of entry for wounded and sick Syrians coming in from Quneitra in the Golan. As part of the ongoing Operation Good Neighbor, Ziv has treated over 3000 Syrians, sometimes in a special ward guarded by Israeli intelligence.

Once a last resort, many are desperate to come over the border, as there are no longer any functioning hospitals in the Syrian provinces across from Israel. Patients start arriving at the border fence at night. They are spotted by Israeli soldiers on constant patrol and brought to a triage tent before being evacuated by helicopter or ambulance to Ziv. It is their only chance of surviving a devastating illness or injury. Some patients are treated for months (free of any charges!!!) before being able to be returned to Syria. These not only include soldiers, but a majority of civilians caught between the warring factions.

Many still consider Israel their enemy. In an interview with a young man who had received a critical skull fracture and had been treated at Ziv for over four months, Jaber from Daraa Province stated, ” To be honest, I never expected to go there (to Israel) in my life. When I entered the enemy’s territory I felt like a failure and a shame. I had to go there in order to save my own life. The rest of the Arab world has shuttered all of its borders to me and other Syrians. Everyone else has abandoned us. However, my opinions about Israel have not changed. The reality is that it is an occupying force. It’s very likely that the goal of treating me in Israel had to do with propaganda, because in the end Israel does nothing to make peace.”

Dr. Michael Harari from Ziv Hospital responded, “In the long run, I suspect (it) will not make any difference. I am not naive that I think the good will shown to several thousand people will translate to any tangible benefits, to any real politics in the Middle East. In the long run, however, the Middle East looks different as a result of this for every who has been involved in this project and it has been very uplifting.”


Artwork from Syrian children displayed in Ziv pediatric unit

Mother of a patient, Issa M, expressed, “In the past we used to know Israel as our enemy. That’s what the regime used to tell us. When we came to Israel we changed our minds. There is no enmity between us. In the end, we discovered that our regime is the enemy of us all.”


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