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Netanyahu says Trump asked him to help rescue White Helmets from Syria

PM says he approved transporting Syrian rescue workers through Israel to Jordan as an ‘important humanitarian gesture’

Syrian Civil Defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, rescue a survivor following reported air-strikes on the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in Eastern Ghouta outside Syria's capital Damascus, March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Msallam Abdalbaset/File)
Syrian Civil Defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, rescue a survivor following reported air-strikes on the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in Eastern Ghouta outside Syria's capital Damascus, March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Msallam Abdalbaset/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said Israel assisted in the evacuation of hundreds of Syrian rescue workers from southwest Syria at the request of US President Donald Trump and other Western 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.

“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.

The White Helmets, or Syrian Civil Defense, are a group of volunteers who rescue Syrians wounded in attacks on rebel-held areas.

Beginning Saturday evening, the Israel Defense Forces escorted some 400 members of the group and their families from Syria to Jordan, where they will be transferred in the coming months to Britain, Canada and Germany.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a security cabinet tour of the IDF’s installations on the Golan Heights, February 6, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The IDF 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.

Israel’s role in the evacuation, which the IDF called a “live-saving mission,” drew praise from the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and European Union.

“The EU recognizes the essential efforts of Israel and Jordan, and of all others — including several EU Member States — who contributed to bringing the White Helmets and their families to safety,” EU foreign policy chief Federicca Mogherini said in a statement.

Mogherini also called for an immediate end to fighting in Syria and the provision of humanitarian aid.

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.

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 his statement, Netanyahu also said Israel will continue to act against Iran’s military activities in Israel.

Israel has repeatedly warned it will not tolerate the military presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria and has carried out airstrikes against Iranian targets.

The Syrian army and its allies since June have been on an offensive in southern Syria, raising concerns Iranian backed-forces could take up positions in formerly rebel-held areas bordering the Golan Heights. Israel has called for the 1974 disengagement agreement between it and Syria to be upheld, and warned Syrian forces against entering the demilitarized buffer zone along the border.

Netanyahu also addressed the recent violence along the Gaza border. Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday, after an IDF soldier was killed by sniper fire from the Palestinian enclave.

“We hit Hamas very hard over the weekend and – if it proves necessary – we will hit them seven-fold,” the prime minister said.

Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza, announced a ceasefire early Saturday that has since largely held.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said earlier Sunday was prepared to remove the punitive economic measures it put in place earlier this month in response to these “fire kites and balloons,” if Hamas stopped the airborne arson attacks.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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