Israel Evacuates Hundreds of Members of White Helmets Rescue Group From Syria

Israel calls move an 'exceptional humanitarian gesture' that was done at the request of the U.S. and its European allies due to 'an immediate threat to Syrian lives'

This photo provided on Jan. 7, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Civil Defense workers inspecting a damaged building after a bombing that targeted the office of Ajnad al-Koukaz, a militant group consisting of foreign fighters in Idlib, Syria.
Uncredited/AP

Israel rescued hundreds of members of the humanitarian organization "White Helmets" from Syria overnight Saturday, allowing them across the Syrian-Israeli border and then transporting them to Jordan. The operation was confirmed by both the Israeli army and the Jordanian Foreign Ministry.

"Following an Israeli Government directive and at the request of the United States and additional European countries, the IDF recently completed a humanitarian effort to rescue members of a Syrian civil organization and their families," a statement from the Israeli military said.

Israeli operation to evacuate hundreds of Syrian White Helmets activists to JordanIDF Spokesperson's Unit

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were two of the Western leaders who asked Israel to help get members of White Helmets out of Syria. "These people who saved lives were now under mortal threat," Netanyahu said in a statement. "I therefore authorized transferring them through Israel to other countries as an important humanitarian measure."

On Saturday, Israeli security forces closed down roads in the Golan Heights, on the Syrian frontier, ahead of the evacuation operation. 

"The civilians were evacuated from the war zone in Southern Syria due to an immediate threat to their lives. The transfer of the displaced Syrians through Israel is an "exceptional humanitarian gesture," the statement continued, adding that "the civilians were subsequently transferred to a neighboring country. Israel continues to maintain a non-intervention policy regarding the Syrian conflict and continues to hold the Syrian regime accountable for all activities in Syrian territory."

A few weeks ago, United States, Canada, France and Britain appealed to Israel political officials to try to assist the evacuation of some 800 activists and civilian members of the White Helmets from Syria. The army had been given a list of the names of all the people to be evacuated. 

Under the tightest secrecy, the organization began to bring its people together; the activists were told to come to two points along the fence – one at the northern Golan Heights near Quneitra and the other at the Israel-Golan Heights-Jordanian border. They traveled to those points on foot and by other means. At 11 P.M. Saturday night, the army began opening the border crossings, closely guarding the evacuees for fear they would be attacked as they crossed into Israel. The Syrian activists and civilians were put on buses, and IDF soldiers gave them food on the bus as it traveled to the crossing point with Jordan. No stops were made.

The Jordanians were waiting, as planned, on their side of the border. By 6 A.M. Sunday, the entire group of Syrians had been moved to Jordanian buses. Most of the people were children, some of them relatives of the activists and others orphans that had been injured in the battles. The IDF’s Bashan Division was in charge of the operation, especially its security aspects, while the National Security Council handled the political coordination.

The White Helmets are sponsored by humanitarian groups mainly in the United States and Canada and works in Syria to provide food, psychological support and other assistance.

A Jordanian foreign ministry spokesman confirmed on Sunday that Jordan had "allowed the UN" to arrange the entry and passage of 800 Syrian civil defence workers whose lives were in danger.

The kingdom agreed to a request by Britain, Germany and Canada to give the White Helmet workers temporary asylum in the kingdom before settlement in the West on humanitarian grounds, Mohammad al Kayed the spokesman said. 

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled toward the Israeli and Jordanian borders recently, after forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad embarked on a campaign to regain the province of Daraa in southern Syria.

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In recent months Assad’s forces have regained the area surrounding the Syrian capital of Damascus and pushed the rebels northward, toward Idlib. Assad has also gazed southward, wanting to regain control over Syria’s border with Jordan and Israel. Given that the rebels are not being given logistical support, overrunning their zones is considered to be relatively easy for the Assad regime.

According to the United Nations and human rights organizations, 270,000 have fled their homes in southern Syria during the latest regime offensive, mostly heading for the Jordan border and some toward Quneitra in the Syrian Golan Heights. Some went to existing refugee camps and some to new tent compounds that Israel and Jordan helped establish.

When encampments started to be visible across the border of the Israeli Golan, Israel said it would provide humanitarian aid but not allow entry to the refugees. Since the beginning of the civil war, Israel allowed Syrian refugees in to receive medical treatment.

Reuters contributed to this report