Prime Minister Netanyahu shakes hand with wounded Syrian in Israeli hospital
Prime Minister Netanyahu shakes hand with wounded Syrian in Israeli hospital Reuters

Incredible footage has emerged showing IDF forces entering Syrian territory to evacuate and treat seriously wounded Islamist rebels - many of whom are likely sworn enemies of the State of Israel.

The rare footage was obtained by Britain's Daily Mail, and is described by one Israeli army officer as "the most dangerous" kind of operation currently undertaken by IDF forces.

The Mail's Jake Wallis-Simons described one particular operation he witnessed and recorded firsthand, which involved the rescue of several wounded Syrian rebels.

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.

The casualty – who doesn't look older than 20 – is losing blood fast. He has been shot in the intestines and the liver, and has a deep laceration in his left ankle. 

After putting him on an emergency drip, the commandos stretcher him back to the armoured car and head back to Israel.

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.

Israel's treatment of wounded Syrians is already well-known; some 2,000 have already been treated at a cost of around 50 million shekels. But while many such casualties have been civilians caught in the crossfire of the bloody civil war - including women and young children - a far larger number have been men of fighting age, most of whom are very open about their affiliation with rebels fighting to oust the Assad regime.

Israeli authorities insist the operations are purely humanitarian, but there is also a definite element of realpolitik at work. While the threat from ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadist rebels opposed to the existence of the Jewish state is a real one, Jerusalem sees the Shia axis of Iran-Assad-Hezbollah as a far greater threat. Aiding rebels along Israel's northern border then - many of whom are themselves theoretically hostile to Israel - is as much a case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" as anything else.

This theory is also aided by the fact that - unlike in northern Syria, where jihadist rebels such as Al Qaeda's Al-Nusra Front, and of course ISIS are dominant - in southern Syria jihadists have a far smaller presence. Indeed, the Southern Front rebel alliance is frequently touted as a the "moderate" rebel alternative.

However the picture is far from black-and-white. At least several hundred Nusra Front fighters and other Islamist brigades are also fighting alongside more "moderate" forces, and ISIS-aligned factions have a limited presence only slightly further north.

Yet Israeli authorities believe that as long as they are providing such crucial treatment to fighters - and delivering them back into Syria to fight another day - rebels will refrain from biting the hand that feeds them.

But it's not just about immediate military concerns. Israel also hopes to win hearts and minds by offering humanitarian aid to people who, while indoctrinated from childhood to hate Israeli and Jews in general, have never actually met one.

Many of the injured fighters interviewed in Israeli hospitals do indeed express their gratitude to the Jewish state for treating them - in many cases saving them from certain death.

"I will not fight against Israel in the future. Israel looks after wounded people better than the Arabs. The Arabs are dogs," said 23-year-old Ahmed, venting his frustration at the lack of support rebels have received from their Arab brethren after nearly five years of brutal bloodshed.

20-year-old Mohammed voiced similar views: "Thanks to Israel for letting me in," he told the interviewer from his hospital bed.

"The butcher Assad is my enemy. Israel is not my enemy. The one who treats you is not your enemy."

Despite all this, the topic is highly controversial among Israelis, many of whom are extremely skeptical about the "hearts-and-minds" argument in particular.

Arab-Israeli social worker Issa Peres, whos is Christian, noted that away from the glare of the cameras, some wounded Islamist rebels had aired radically different views.

"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.'"

"I don't trust any one of them," he continued. "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."