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

In a hospital in northern Israel, wounded Syrian rebel Malek is waiting until he is well enough to pick up his gun again to battle President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"I will return to Syria and fight until Assad is gone," the 22-year-old told AFP in a treatment room guarded by Israeli soldiers.

Five years into Syria's civil war, Israel has seen benefits despite the chaos unfolding next door, and the treatment of wounded fighters is one sign of its quiet and limited involvement.

It has sought to avoid being dragged directly into the conflict, but at the same time defend its interests by carrying out air strikes to stop arms deliveries to the Iran-proxy Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon. It also has coordinated with Russia despite Moscow's support for Assad's regime, which Israel opposes.

Israel has been treating war wounded who seek help out of humanitarian concerns, but analysts point out that as an added benefit, rebels who may receive treatment are also fighting, and weakening, Hezbollah terrorists backing Assad.

Officially at war

Israel and Syria have formally been at war for decades though the demarcation line between them had been quiet for more than 30 years.

When the civil war began in 2011, Israel decided to minimize any active intervention, said Haim Tomer, a former senior officer of Israeli intelligence service Mossad.

But as Syria splintered, new threats and potential opportunities arose for Israel - sometimes leading to more direct involvement. Israel has allegedly carried out a series of air strikes on Hezbollah within Syria, though it does not publicly confirm or deny them aside from a rare hint given by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in December.

More than 2,000 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals since 2013, according to the IDF.

Malek, who says he fights in a brigade in the Free Syrian Army in southern Syria, has received one operation for a stomach wound paid for by Israel and was waiting for another on his leg.

He said rebel commanders knew about the treatment and there was acceptance of it.

Another fighter, on his second trip to Israel, said that when he was wounded in a car bomb he chose Israel over Jordan for treatment because of its better healthcare.

The Ziv Hospital estimates each Syrian on average costs the Israeli government roughly $15,000.

Shifting threats

The war means that Assad's forces no longer have the capacity to seriously threaten Israel. And Hezbollah appears too preoccupied fighting alongside Assad to attack Israel.

"The threat from the state of Syria to Israel disappeared, and this is part of the good news," said Itamar Yaar, a former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council.

"We don't see this will change in the coming months or few years," he added, stressing Israel is happy to see Hezbollah battle it out with Islamists in clashes in which it has lost hundreds of fighters.

But the fractious nature of the war also creates potential threats, including what Israel sees as the growing influence of its arch-foe Iran in Syria.

In the province of Quneitra, within sight of the Israeli Golan Heights and where Malek was fighting, much of the territory is held by Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Further south are the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which have been linked to Islamic State (ISIS). Despite rhetoric against Israel, neither Al Nusra nor ISIS has attacked Israeli territory.

But authorities have erected a 50-kilometer fence along the border to keep fighting at bay, and increased coordination with the Jordanian army.

Russia's entry into the war last September in support of Assad added another layer of complexity.

Yaar said that while Russia and Israel have solid relations, Moscow's involvement made Israel's activities inside Syria harder because it forced the Jewish state to coordinate.

Israeli intelligence officials are now watching to what extent Russia follows through on its announced withdrawal of forces.

"I don't think Israel will react very differently until we see changes on the ground," Yaar said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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