Israel evacuates White Helmets and families to Jordan in multinational resettlement mission

Israel evacuates White Helmets and families to Jordan in multinational resettlement mission
Jordan authorised the UN to organise the passage of 800 Syrian citizens via Israel, to be resettled in western countries, the kingdom said.

4 min read
22 July, 2018
The first responders have rescued thousands of people trapped under rubble [Getty]

Hundreds of White Helmets rescuers and their family members threatened by advancing Syrian regime forces were evacuated by Israel to Jordan for resettlement in the UK, Canada and Germany, Amman said on Sunday.

Jordan "authorised the United Nations to organise the passage of 800 Syrian citizens through Jordan to be resettled in western countries", the kingdom said.

"The government gave the permission after Britain, Germany and Canada made a legally binding undertaking to resettle them within a specified period of time due to 'a risk to their lives'."

An Israeli government source confirmed Israel's military had rescued 800 people who were taken to Jordan.

"Upon request of the US, Canada and European states Israel has completed a humanitarian effort to rescue members of a Syrian civil organisation ('White Helmets') and families," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon tweeted.

The Israeli army said it evacuated the White Helmets overnight at the request of the US and European countries, in what it called "an exceptional humanitarian gesture".

"The civilians were evacuated from the war zone in southern Syria due to an immediate threat to their lives.

"The civilians were subsequently transferred to a neighbouring country," it said without elaborating.

Israel has been sending medical aid to civilians who have fled fighting in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights.

However, it has refused to admit hundreds of refugees enter the Israel-occupied Golan Heights region, despite international pressure.

Activists say that the Syrians and their families lives are in peril if they aren't given refuge in the Israeli-occupied territories, following a regime advance in the Quneitra region.

Israel troops have repeatedly warned the refugees to keep away from the perimeter fence or face violent consequences.

Deadly bombardments

On 19 June, forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad launched a Russian-backed offensive to retake Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

Just a month later, government institutions look set to return to most of these two provinces through a combination of deadly bombardment and Moscow-brokered surrender deals.

These deals provide for rebels to hand over their heavy weapons and those who disagree with a regime takeover to be bussed with family members towards opposition-held areas in the north of the country.

The Islamic State group is not party to these deals, and Russian planes bombarded a holdout of the jihadi group in Daraa province overnight, a UK-based war monitor said.

More than 20,000 civilians have fled bombardment on the IS-held corner on the border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan in the past 24 hours, fleeing into regime-held areas, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

White Helmets

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

White Helmets head Raed Saleh said the evacuees had arrived in Jordan after being "surrounded in a dangerous region".

They were encircled in the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, he said, including a number trapped between the border with the Golan Heights and advancing Russia-backed regime troops, he told AFP.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she "called for global leadership to support and help these heroes" during a meeting of foreign ministers at the NATO leaders' summit in Brussels a week ago. 

The White Helmets have rescued tens 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 200 of its volunteers have died and another 500 have been wounded.

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.

Some members have received training abroad, including in Turkey, returning to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.

The group receives funding from a number of governments, including the UK, Germany and the United States, but also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment such as its signature hard hats.

The New Arab contacted The White Helmets for a response about the operation, but are yet to receive a response.

Agencies contributed to this story.