Israel evacuates hundreds of Syrian White Helmets in humanitarian effort

The evacuation was kept secret and began at 9:30 p.m.

Israel evacutes White Helmets from Syria, July 22, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
More than 400 Syrians affiliated with the White Helmets and their families were evacuated Sunday from Quneitra through Israel to Jordan, according to the IDF. Syrian Civil Defense, the official name of the White Helmets, is a volunteer organization that has worked in rebel areas of Syria providing medical support during the seven-yearlong Syrian civil war.
According to a report published in the German newspaper Bild on Saturday night written by Paul Ronzheimer, Giorgos Moutafis and Julian Ropcke, more than 800 Syrians were transported across the Syrian-Israel border. “From there on to Jordan,” the article states. “They are members and families of the famous White Helmets.” Those evacuated will continue on to the UK, Canada and Germany, according to Bild.
A Jordanian government source said 422 people were brought from Syria, down from the 800 announced earlier by the Foreign Ministry in Amman. A second, non-Jordanian source familiar with the agreement said the original plan had been to evacuate 800 people, but only 422 made it out as operations were hampered by checkpoints and the expansion of Islamic State in the area.
The evacuation was kept secret and began at 9:30 p.m., when minibuses took the families through the border in the “dark of night.”
According to Ronzheimer, the evacuation was “still ongoing” in the early hours of Sunday. By 5 a.m., the buses reached the Jordanian border, according to Ronzheimer who posted photos at the time. He tweeted on Saturday that the UN was involved, although the full details remained largely unknown until Sunday morning.
The operation was the result of a unique international effort to secure the safety of the White Helmets and their families. The Associated Press reported on Thursday that US officials had been “finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian Civil Defense workers, also known as the White Helmets, and their families from the province through neighboring countries.”
A Syrian source familiar with the White Helmet operations in southern Syria said he was surprised to learn of the sudden evacuation because Jordan had not allowed the White Helmet volunteers to evacuate over the last few weeks.
However, Amman confirmed on Saturday that it would allow the 800 Syrians transit via the kingdom. In a statement posted online, the government said, “Syrians who were working in the civil defense fled the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition after the attack by the Syrian Army.”
According to Lieutenant Colonel. “A”, commander of Operation Good Neighbor in which Israel provides aid to Syrians fleeing the war: “There is no doubt that [the situation] was meaningful as we stood on the border fence yesterday absorbing families, especially women and children – families who initially cower in fear but when reaching the border have a sparkle in their eyes knowing that they have received their lives back. I am happy to be an officer in the army and in a country that carries out such an operation and expresses values of humanity and compassion. This is the essence of our work and this is a moment of great significance.”
US Ambassador David Friedman tweeted: “Acting at the direction of President Trump, I had the privilege to work with the Israeli Government & my incredible colleagues at State & NSC in coordinating Israel’s daring rescue of #WhiteHelmets and their families from Syria. Thank you Israel for the great humanitarian effort!”
Heather Nauert, the US Department of State spokesperson commented that "We deeply appreciate Israel's role in facilitating the transit of the White Helmets and their family members.  We commend Jordan's generosity in supporting their processing by UNHCR and the commitment of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany to provide the White Helmets and their families with permanent homes."
The Syrians will stay in a closed area in Jordan for no more than three months, and their passage onward has been guaranteed by three Western countries. Jordan emphasized that it has hosted 1.3 million refugees from Syria and that the latest deal was organized by the United Nations.
Neither the AP report nor the Jordanian government statement mentioned Israel. This points to the fact that Israel’s role was considered controversial, and that the method of the evacuation had to be kept under wraps until it was complete.
“Following the request of the United States and other European countries, and in according with the directives of the political leadership, the IDF completed a humanitarian effort to rescue members of a Syrian civilian organizations and their families from the fighting zone in southern Syria,” the IDF said on Sunday morning. The transfer was carried out as a humanitarian gesture and the Syrians were transported to a neighboring country, the statement said. “Israel does not intervene in internal fighting in Syria.”
Canada played a role in supporting the evacuation. The press secretary of the Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa called the evacuees “courageous volunteers and first responders who risk their lives to help their fellow Syrians,” and said Canada was working in close partnership with the UK and Germany to ensure the safety of the civil defense workers and their families.
“Canada has been unequivocal about its support for the White Helmets. At a meeting of foreign ministers on the occasion of the NATO leaders’ summit in Brussels a week ago, I called for global leadership to support and help these heroes,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said. Canada agreed to take 50 of the White Helmets, who with the addition of family members, could mean up to 250 people, according to Canada’s CBC.
The transfer of the White Helmets was kept secret until the last moment, and raises many questions. Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Israeli Forum for Regional Thinking and an expert on the conflict in southern Syria, tweeted that the number of people being reported rescued is incorrect. She played down reports that Israel “rescued” the White Helmets.
“If Western countries did not step up and agree to receive these people as refugees, they would still be trapped inside Syria, facing detention in Assad regime torture dungeons or bombings by the Assad regime and Russia,” she said.
Although Israel has carried out Operation Good Neighbor over the last several years, treating 5,000 Syrians in hospitals and providing humanitarian aid, Jerusalem did not allow Syrians fleeing the fighting to enter Israel. When 200 Syrians approached the Golan Heights border fence on July 17, they were ordered to go back. The thousands of Syrians who gathered near the border within the last month were fleeing fighting in southern Syria.
The Syrian regime launched a large offensive in June that has retaken the rebel-held areas in Deraa and Quneitra bordering Jordan and the Israeli-held Golan Heights. The Syrian rebels agreed to a reconciliation with the regime on Friday, and their areas were mostly surrendered by Saturday night, leaving only a sliver of territory near the border and within the 1974 cease-fire lines.
Many of the tens of thousands of Syrians who fled the fighting began returning home or taking buses to the northern Idlib province on Friday, where some of the rebels agreed to go. However, this apparently left the White Helmet volunteers in limbo and fearful of being persecuted. The Assad regime has allowed locals to remain in control of their areas under a reconciliation agreement, but those accused of working for Western governments or civil defense felt threatened. The regime has accused the White Helmets of being linked to terrorists, and in June slammed the US and UK for funding the group.
Julian Reichelt of Bild praised Israel for opening its border to the “persecuted and hunted Syrians.”
Anna Ahronheim and Reuters contributed to this report.