In a daring operation, Israeli security forces evacuated 422 White Helmet rescue workers and their families from Syria and escorted them into Jordan on Sunday. From Jordan, where they are being protected in what is called “a closed location,” they will be given asylum in the UK, Germany and Canada within the next three months.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in a video statement that Israel had conducted the evacuation at the request of US President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders out of concern that their lives were in danger.
The rescuers, known for wearing their trademark white helmets, are officially called the Syria Civil Defense, and have been credited with saving thousands of Syrian lives in rebel-held areas during attacks by the regime of President Bashar Assad since 2013, when the organization was formed. Their motto is: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”
The Syrian government, however, considers them Western puppets, and it was no surprise when it issued a statement calling the rescue “a criminal operation” carried out by “Israel and its tools.”
What was surprising was that official statements issued after the operation by the White Helmets themselves and other countries, such as France, the UK and Germany, conspicuously omitted any Israeli role. “Ninety-eight male and female White Helmet volunteers, with 324 of their family members – mostly women and children – have arrived in Jordan through the occupied Syrian Golan Heights after being forced to flee their homes in southern Syria,” the White Helmets tweeted, with no mention of Israel.
A statement by the French Foreign Ministry said the rescued families were now in Jordan, but pointedly refrained from acknowledging Israel. In response, a justifiably angry French parliamentarian Meyer Habib said: “Even European Union Foreign Policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who is usually hostile to Israel, expressed her appreciation. However, in the official statement of the French Foreign Ministry, we do not even mention the word ‘Israel.’”
Similarly, a statement by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt noted that, “Following a joint diplomatic effort by the UK and international partners, a group of White Helmets volunteers from southern Syria and their families have been able to leave Syria for safety.”
To be fair, though, Hunt made a point of thanking Israel on Twitter. “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,” he tweeted.
Israeli officials, who managed to keep the clandestine operation under wraps until it was over, said that the original plan had been to rescue more than 800 people over the Golan Heights and via Quneitra into Jordan, but the operation had been hampered by Syrian checkpoints and Islamic State fighters in the region.
Convincing the volunteers to leave their homes, deciding who among the families would depart, and assembling them in a country where there is spotty communication were also enormous hurdles, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported. Others reportedly declined to be rescued because their rescuers were Israeli and they had no guarantees where they would end up.
In contrast to the lack of praise for Israel from the countries involved and the White Helmets themselves, the US said it “deeply appreciates” Israel’s role in their rescue as well as Jordan’s “generosity” in providing them with a temporary safe haven.
CBC revealed that former justice minister and human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, who recently visited The Jerusalem Post offices, had been enlisted “in order to broker the arrangement.” Also involved in coordinating the operation was US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who tweeted, “I had the privilege to work with the Israeli government and my incredible colleagues at State and NSC in coordinating Israel’s daring rescue of #White Helmets and their families from Syria.”
An estimated 3,000 White Helmets and their families remain in areas controlled by the opposition in northern Syria, which the Assad regime is expected to target next. We can only hope that they too can be rescued in time. In the meantime, the world might do well to pause and thank Israel for its role in the successful rescue of the 422 people from a hostile country who are now safe in Jordan.