Israel transported several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and their families from southwest Syria to Jordan overnight Saturday, saying it participated in “a humanitarian effort” at the request of the United States and European countries.
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.
According to Jordan’s official Petra state news outlet, the evacuees included 800 White Helmets personnel and their families.
The Jordanian government, which has consistently refused to accept Syrian refugees in recent years, said an exception was made in this case as the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany agreed to take the 800 White Helmet rescuers and their families. The Syrian refugees are scheduled to resettle in those three countries by the end of October, according to Petra.
Germany’s Bild newspaper 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.
— Paul Ronzheimer (@ronzheimer) July 22, 2018
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.”
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 thousands of 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.
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.
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.
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.