Israel wins widespread praise for role in rescue of Syria’s White Helmets

UK foreign secretary thanks Israel and Jordan for helping evacuate hundreds of the civil defense workers, who will be taken in by Western countries

In this photo taken on October 5, 2016, Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, work around destroyed buildings following reported airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP PHOTO / Sameer Al-Doumy)
In this photo taken on October 5, 2016, Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, work around destroyed buildings following reported airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP PHOTO / Sameer Al-Doumy)

Israel earned plaudits on Sunday for helping to evacuate hundreds of Syrian civil defense workers from southern Syria to Jordan overnight at the request of Western countries.

Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets, is a network of first responders who rescue wounded in the aftermath of airstrikes, shelling or explosions in rebel-held territory.

The IDF took them from Syria and escorted them through Israel to Jordan. Jordan said 800 White Helmets rescuers and their families had been authorized to enter into the country and would eventually be taken in by Britain, Germany and Canada. Jordan later said a total of 422 had actually made the trip.

“Fantastic news that we – UK and friends – have secured evacuation of White Helmets and their families – thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request,” UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote on his Twitter account.

“The [White Helmets] are the bravest of the brave and in a desperate situation this is at least one ray of hope,” added Hunt.

Niels Annen, a minister of state at Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, also praised Israel for the evacuation mission.

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.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the rescue effort was carried out at the request of the United States, Canada and European countries.

Britain’s Foreign Office said it and “international partners” had helped facilitate the evacuations.

“White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection,” it said in a statement.

“We therefore took steps with the aim of affording that protection to as many of the volunteers and their families as possible.”

A German diplomatic source said Berlin would accept several of the evacuees, but did not provide a figure.

“Germany will participate with several international partners in taking in evacuated White Helmets,” the source said.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she had “called for global leadership to support and help these heroes” at last week’s NATO summit.

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 seven-year conflict.

Since its formation, when Syria’s conflict was nearing its third year, more than 250 of its volunteers have been killed.

The group’s motto — “To save one life is to save all of humanity” — is drawn from a verse in the Quran, although the White Helmets insist they treat all victims, regardless of religion.

The White Helmets are named for the distinctive white hardhats 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.

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.

Civil Defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, carry a wounded man into a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma, following air strikes by regime forces on the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 20, 2018. (Hamza Al-Ajweh/AFP)

Germany’s Bild newspaper reported that 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.

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.

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