Israel has evacuated 800 White Helmets rescuers and their family members threatened by advancing Syrian regime forces to Jordan for resettlement in Britain, Canada and Germany, Amman said Sunday.
Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, is a network of first responders which rescues wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or explosions in rebel-held territory.
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’.”
RESCUED: @SyriaCivilDef faced an immediate threat to their lives in Syria. We rescued hundreds of them and their families. They passed through Israel and are now out of harm's way. We conducted this life-saving mission at the request of the US, Canada, and EU countries.
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) July 22, 2018
An Israeli government source confirmed Israel’s military had rescued 800 people who were taken to Jordan.
“Upon request of the U.S., 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.
White Helmets head Raed Saleh said the evacuees had arrived in Jordan after being “surrounded in a dangerous region.” They had been encircled in Daraa and Quneitra, he told AFP.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it and “international partners” had helped facilitate the evacuations.
“White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection,” it said in a statement. “We therefore took steps with the aim of affording that protection to as many of the volunteers and their families as possible.”
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. The WH are the bravest of the brave and in a desperate situation this is at least one ray of hope
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 22, 2018
A German diplomatic source said Berlin would accept several of the evacuees, but did not provide a figure.
“Germany will participate with several international partners in taking in evacuated White Helmets,” the source said.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she had “called for global leadership to support and help these heroes” at last week’s NATO summit.
The White Helmets have rescued 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 250 of its volunteers have been killed.
The group’s motto — “To save one life is to save all of humanity” — is drawn from a verse in the Koran, 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 Britain, Germany and the United States, but also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment such as its signature hard hats.
Last year, a Netflix production called “The White Helmets” won an Academy Award for best short documentary.
A second film on the group, named “Last Men in Aleppo,” was nominated for an Oscar in 2018.
The Israeli army said it evacuated the White Helmets overnight at the request of the U.S. 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.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, in a move never recognised internationally.
On June 19, forces of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad launched an Russia-backed offensive to retake Daraa and Quneitra provinces.
Just a month later, regime forces have regained control of 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 for those who disagree with a regime takeover to be bussed with family members to opposition-held areas in the north of the country.
Jihadists are not party to these deals, and Russian planes bombarded a holdout of the Islamic State group in Daraa province overnight, a Britain-based war monitor said.
More than 20,000 civilians have fled bombardment on the IS-held corner along the border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan in the past 24 hours, fleeing into regime-held areas, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.