Israel says it's doubling up as a field hospital for Syria militants for 'humanitarian' reasons
Originally appeared in The Daily Mail
Under cover of darkness, an Israeli armoured car advances down the potholed road that leads to Syria. As it crests a small hill, the driver picks up the radio handset and tells his commanding officer that the border is in sight.
He kills the engine. Ten heavily-armed commandos jump out and take cover, watching for signs of ambush. Then five of them move up to the 12ft chainlink fence that marks the limit of Israeli-held territory.
On the other side, on the very edge of Syria, lies an unconscious man wrapped like a doll in a blood-drenched duvet. The commandos unlock the fence, open a section of it and drag him onto Israeli soil.
But this wounded man is not an Israeli soldier, or even an Israeli citizen. He is an Islamic militant. And his rescue forms part of an extraordinary humanitarian mission that is fraught with danger and has provoked deep controversy on all sides.
MailOnline has gained unprecedented access to this secretive and hazardous operation, embedding with the commandos to obtain exclusive footage, and interviewing the medics who are obliged to treat Syrian militants, some of whom openly admit that they intend to kill Israelis.
There is no doubt about the danger involved. Many of the casualties rescued by Israel belong to Salafist groups who harbour a deep-seated hatred of the Jewish State. It has also been reported that some may be members of Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian group affiliated to Al Qaeda that has kidnapped scores of UN peacekeeping troops in this area, and has massacred Christians deeper in Syria.
In the three years that Israel has been running these operations, it has saved the lives of more than 2,000 Syrians – at least 80 per cent of whom are male and of fighting age – at a cost of 50 million shekels (£8.7 million).It is unclear how the two enemies arrange the rescue. All that has been disclosed is that word reaches Israeli forces that casualties have been dumped at the border, intelligence establishes that it is not a trap, and the commandos are sent in.
Almost nothing is known about the Syrian as he is wheeled into emergency surgery 40 minutes after the rescue. He may be a member of a relatively moderate Islamist group, or he may be a jihadi. For its part, Israel says it either does not gather, or does not disclose, this information.
Officially, Israel says that this operation is part of its programme of humanitarianism, which has provided aid to a long list of countries from Haiti to Nepal. Palestinian civilians are also regular patients at Israeli hospitals such as the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa.
A spokesman pointed out that about 20 per cent of the Syrians treated by Israel are civilians. MailOnline witnessed Israeli army medics treating a sick two-month-old baby and a middle-aged man who had suffered a heart attack, both of whom were evacuated across the Syrian border by the commandos.
MailOnline was given access to interview Syrian militants at the Ziv Medical Centre in Safed, northern Israel, one of a number of hospitals at which they are treated, on condition that their identities are not revealed. If other Syrians discovered they had received medical care in the hated Israel, they would be in danger of execution.
The casualties lavished praise on Israel. 'I will not fight against Israel in the future. Israel looks after wounded people better than the Arabs. The Arabs are dogs,' said a wiry rebel fighter who gave his name as Ahmed, 23, who was recovering from a gunshot wound to the groin.
'Before I came here, I wouldn't have said this. But there are many people who got injured and came to Israel for treatment, and they told me about it. I feel safe here in Israel. But when I am well again, I will go back and fight.'
Another rebel, 20-year-old Mohammed, whose leg had been all but destroyed by fire from a Russian-made 'Dushka' heavy machine gun, agreed. 'Thanks to Israel for letting me in,' he said, eyeing the surgical frame supporting his shattered leg.
'The butcher Assad is my enemy. Israel is not my enemy. The one who treats you is not your enemy.' As soon as he was well enough, he added, he too intended to go back to Syria to take up arms again.
The Israeli doctor in charge of their treatment, Russian-born Professor Alexander Lerner – a leading expert in treating war injuries – did not disguise his delight at these responses.
'We are trying to build peace with our neighbours and win their hearts and minds,' he said. 'There are now 2,000 Syrians who have had their lives saved by Israel. We hope that this will change their life position. In the future, they will be more friendly to Israel and they won't want to fight us.'
Other medical staff, however, believe that the militants were lying. Issa Peres, 36, a Christian Israeli Arab social worker, said that many hospital staff resented having to treat them.
'I work with the Syrians all the time, I see and hear bad things,' he said. 'Many of them said bad words to me, that they are going to kill me, they are going to fight with the Christian community, when they are safe they will fight against Israel.
'They have destroyed churches and Christian communities in Syria. I have to care for them, it is my job. But if I'm sitting with myself, I say no, it is not right for Israel to treat them.'
Asked about the fighters' promises not to fight against Israel in the future, he said: 'I don't trust any one of them. They grew up believing Israel is their enemy, Israel is the devil. You can't change their minds by taking care of them for two weeks.'
Other Israelis are more bitter. In June, two wounded Syrian jihadis were attacked by a lynch-mob while they were being transported to hospital by ambulance. One was beaten to death, while the other suffered serious injuries.
Six weeks later, two members of the Israeli Druze community – an Arabic-speaking people found in Israel and across the Levant – were charged with murder. It emerged that the militants were suspected members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate who had attacked Druze villages in Syria.
According to one senior Israeli army officer, Israel's humanitarian mission may also be part of a security strategy, aiming to 'keep the northern border quiet and our soldiers safe' by using medical treatment as an 'insurance policy'.
'They are desperate for our medical help. They have no doctors, not even a vet. Once we treated a man who had been stitched up by a friend with a needle and thread. 'The Syrians will not strike us because they know we'd stop helping them,' Lieutenant Colonel Malka told MailOnline.
'If they want our help to continue, they know they must stop anybody from attacking our soldiers and civilians.'
Some experts argue that the status quo makes sense for both sides. The militants are stretched almost to breaking-point in a bitter struggle against Assad, and Israel, which is coping with stabbings throughout the country and sporadic rocket fire from Gaza, wants to avoid a flare-up of terror in the north.
Others, however, believe that Israel is also pursuing more hard-headed geopolitical goals. 'Above all, Israel wants to prevent Hezbollah from gaining control on the other side of the border,' said Michael Stephens, Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
'The Sunni militants are fighting Hezbollah, so for now they share the same objectives as Israel. That's why we're seeing this odd cooperation between people who would be enemies under any other circumstances.
'It is also possible that Israel is looking at what capacity these Syrians can add to its intelligence gathering in Syria, which is already formidable.'
Analysts agree that the powerful Shia alliance of Iran, Hezbollah and Assad's troops is an existential threat to Israel, far outweighing any danger from the Sunni Islamist rebels (who are backed by Saudi Arabia, understood to have a form of working relationship in some areas with Israel).
Significantly, an Israeli spokesman confirmed that no medical support has been provided to any militants from the Shia alliance.
'From an Israeli viewpoint, it's a case of my enemy's enemy is my friend,' said Kamal Alam, research analyst at RUSI and an expert in Syrian affairs.
'There is no one they can trust in the Syrian quagmire, but if you get rid of Hezbollah, that's the end of Iran in the region. Israel's main aim has to be to eliminate Hezbollah – and whoever takes on Hezbollah is an uneasy but necessary ally.
'In giving medical support to these fighters, Israel has done a deal with the devil.'
For Israel to actually arm and equip the Sunni militants, he pointed out, would be to risk a fierce backlash, both from the Arab world and in Israel. It would also run the risk that the weapons could one day be turned against the Jewish State.
Humanitarian medical assistance, on the other hand, which is also offered to civilians, raises fewer objections on both sides, while fulfilling mutual strategic objectives.
This is where the commandos come in. For these young soldiers, the night is yet young; taking Syrian casualties to hospital was just the first half of their duties. As the night wears on, an ambulance draws up carrying a patched-up militant ready to be taken back to war.
He has received treatment at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel's leading medical facility for treating the most severely wounded patients. A civilian ambulance – with an armed guard – has taken him on the 90-minute journey to the border, to avoid attracting the attention of lynch-mobs along the way.
MailOnline is allowed to film on condition that the militant is not asked his allegiances. When he is wheeled out of the ambulance, it is clear that despite intensive medical treatment, he is still very unwell. One of his legs is in plaster and the other is scarred with shrapnel pockmarks, and his right eye is covered with a bandage. He looks disoriented and afraid as he is transferred into an armoured vehicle and driven off into the darkness.
From Israel's point of view, this is the conclusion of another successful humanitarian mission, which now take place nightly as the conflict in Syria burns on. At the same time, however, many believe that this man's treatment – and the care given to thousands of Syrians like him – is an important, if unlikely, investment in Israel's security.