Monday, July 23, 2018

In exceptional humanitarian gesture, IDF extracts 800 aid workers from Syria - Lilach Shoval, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff

by Lilach Shoval, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff

At the request of U.S., Europe, Israel evacuates some 800 members of Syria's White Helmets civil defense group and their families to Jordan due to "immediate threat" to their lives

Members of the White Helmets civil defense group during a rescue operation in Syria
Photo: AP

The Israeli military recently extracted some 800 members of Syria's White Helmets civil defense group and their families, evacuating them to Jordan from southwest Syria. The unprecedented operation was carried out at the request of the United States and some of Israel's European allies.

A Russian-backed Syrian army offensive is underway in the area, which placed the Syrian aid workers directly in harm's way, local media reported.

The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said Sunday that "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.

"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 IDF said that the group was transferred to an unnamed neighboring country and that 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."

Israeli media identified the Syrians as belonging to the White Helmets organization. Officially called the Syrian Civil Defense but known by their distinctive white helmets, the group has operated a rescue service in rebel-held parts of Syria.

According to media reports, the aid workers were transported to the Jordanian border by bus.

Jordan's official Petra news agency said on its website that the kingdom "authorized the United Nations to organize the passage of about 800 Syrian citizens through Jordan for resettlement in Western countries."

The agency identified the Syrians as civil defense workers who fled areas controlled by the Syrian opposition after attacks there by the Syrian army.

Petra said they would remain in a closed area in Jordan and that Britain, Germany and Canada had agreed to resettle them within three months.

Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad al-Kayed confirmed the reports and said the Syrians would remain in Jordan for three months.

"The request was approved based on purely humanitarian reasons," he said.

U.S. officials had said they were finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and their families from southwest Syria as Russian-backed government forces closed in on Quneitra province.

The officials said the White Helmets, who have enjoyed backing from the United States and other Western nations for years, were likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retook control of the southwest. Evacuation plans were accelerated after last week's NATO summit in Brussels.

Since the Syrian government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier with the Golan Heights has been the safest in the southwestern region, attracting hundreds of displaced people because it is along the disengagement line with Israel, demarcated in 1974.

The Syrian government is unlikely to fire there or carry out airstrikes for fear of an Israeli response.

The White Helmets typically have operated in opposition-held areas across Syria, places where government services are almost nonexistent, risking their lives to save hundreds of civilian lives during relentless government airstrikes and bombardments.

Over the last month, Syrian government forces aided by Russian air power have swept through southwestern Syria to consolidate government control over this strategic corner of the country that straddles the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli Golan Heights.

With its new advances, government forces are, for the first time since the civil war began in 2011, retaking this territory from the rebels and restoring their positions along the disengagement line on the frontier with Israel that is part of a cease-fire agreement reached in 1974 between the two countries formally still at war.

The offensive has restored Syrian government control over a swathe of the southwest, strategic territory at the borders with Jordan and Israel.

Lilach Shoval, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff


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