IDF officer: Syrian refugees’ eyes ‘twinkled’ as they crossed through Israel

Military releases footage showing the transfer of 422 ‘White Helmets’ rescue workers and their families, who entered Israel before traveling to Jordan, in a late-night operation

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The head of the Israeli military project to assist southern Syria said the eyes of the “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families “twinkled from happiness,” when they discovered they were going to be able to escape Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s brutal regime.

“There’s no doubt that it was an emotional position to be in yesterday, to stand on the border fence and accept the families, mostly women and children,” said Lt. Col. “Aleph,” who can only be identified by his rank and the first Hebrew letter of his name for security reasons.

In a predawn operation on Sunday, the Israeli military’s 210th Bashan Division oversaw the transfer of 422 Syrians from the “White Helmets” rescue organization and their families from the Syrian Golan Heights through Israel to Jordan.

“The families crossed [the fence], at first apprehensively, but once they reached the border, their eyes twinkled from happiness with the knowledge that they’d gotten their lives back. I am happy to be an officer in an army and in a country that is carrying out this mission and expressing the values of humaneness and compassion,” the lieutenant colonel said.

“This is the nature of our work and this is a significant moment like no other,” he added.

IDF soldiers give water to ‘White Helmet’ rescue workers and their families, whom Israel transported from Syria into Jordan, as they flee the Assad regime, on July 22, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to Jordan’s official Petra news service, the 422 Syrian refugees will be resettled in Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany within three months. The Jordanian government initially reported that 800 had crossed the border, but later clarified that this was an incorrect number.

Jordan has a standing policy not to accept any more Syrian refugees, as does Israel.

On Sunday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the decision to facilitate the transfer of the “White Helmets” through Israel into Jordan was made in light of requests from US President Donald Trump and other world leaders.

“Several days ago, President Trump contacted me, as did Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, and others, and requested that we assist in evacuating hundreds of ‘White Helmets’ from Syria,” Netanyahu said in a statement from his office.

IDF soldiers oversee the transfer of 422 ‘White Helmet’ rescue workers and their families through Israel and into Jordan, as they flee the Assad regime, on July 22, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

“These are people who saved lives and were now in mortal danger. Therefore, I approved their passage through Israel to additional countries, as an important humanitarian gesture,” the prime minister added.

In recent years, Israel has been engaged in a massive multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation to keep thousands of Syrians along the border from starving or falling ill due to the lack of food and basic medical care.

The Jewish state has treated some 5,000 people in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel, since 2013. Since 2016, as part of Operation Good Neighbor, over 600 Syrian children, accompanied by their mothers, have come to Israel for treatment. Hundreds of tons of food, medical equipment and clothing have also been sent across the border to Syria.

However, a mass transfer of hundreds of refugees has never before happened.

The Israel Defense Forces said it engaged in the “out of the ordinary” gesture due to the “immediate risk” to the lives of the civilians, as Russian-backed regime forces closed in on the area. It stressed that it was not intervening in the ongoing fighting in Syria.

IDF soldiers oversee the transfer of 422 ‘White Helmet’ rescue workers and their families through Israel and into Jordan, as they flee the Assad regime, on July 22, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Germany’s Bild newspaper, which broke the story, reported that a convoy of dozens of buses crossed the Syrian border into Israel late Saturday, and were escorted to the Jordanian border by Israeli police and UN forces.

The evacuation took place from Quneitra, which straddles the frontier with the Golan Heights and where the civil defense team was trapped. It is the last sliver of land still outside government control in the region.

According to the Bild report, the secret operation began around 9:00 p.m. Saturday, reaching its peak after midnight. The evacuees arrived at the border with Israel, and the IDF opened the gates and let them through. Medical treatment was provided to those in need, and the evacuees were provided with food and water.

The humanitarian workers and their families then boarded a fleet of buses that was already waiting for them at the site. The army and police blocked roads in the area, allowing the convoy to pass unimpeded.

An individual involved in the rescue told Hadashot news the effort was “one of the most moving operations. There were lots of children.”

Syrian state TV Al-Ikhbariya reported the Israeli evacuation of the White Helmets, calling it a “scandal” and saying “terrorist groups” now have “zero options.”

The Canadian government confirmed its participation in Saturday’s rescue effort.

“Canada, working in close partnership with the United Kingdom and Germany, has been leading an international effort to ensure the safety of White Helmets and their families,” Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.

The White Helmets rescue workers, who have enjoyed backing from the US and other Western nations for years, were likely to be targeted by Syrian forces, as they retake control of the southwest, according to officials familiar with the plan for the operation.

A rescue worker carrying a child following an alleged chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria, April 8, 2018. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

In other parts of Syria where government control has been restored, civil defense volunteers have almost always evacuated to other opposition-controlled areas.

The officials said planning for the evacuation had been taking place for some time, but accelerated after a recent NATO summit in Brussels.

Syrian government supporters accuse the White Helmets, who only operate in opposition-held areas where government services are almost non-existent and aerial bombings are recurrent, of being politically affiliated with the rebel groups. Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly accused them of staging chemical attacks in opposition areas for propaganda purposes, a charge that has never been proven.

Rescue workers work at the site of airstrikes in the al-Sakhour neighborhood of the rebel-held part of eastern Aleppo, Syria, September 21, 2016. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets, is a network of first responders which rescues wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or blasts in rebel-held territory.

The White Helmets have rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble or caught up in fighting in battered opposition-held zones along various fronts of Syria’s conflict.

Some members have received training abroad, including in Turkey, returning to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.

Since its formation, when Syria’s conflict was nearing its third year, more than 200 of its volunteers have died and another 500 have been wounded.

The group’s motto — “To save one life is to save all of humanity” — is drawn from a verse of the Quran.

The White Helmets are named for the distinctive white hard hats worn by volunteers and have gained international renown for their daring rescues of victims from rubble following regime airstrikes, often filmed and circulated on social media.

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