Israel evacuated 422 volunteer White Helmet rescuers and their families from the Syrian war zone Saturday night and took them to Jordan in a convoy of buses accompanied by Israeli police and United Nations vehicles.
The Israeli Defense Force, identifying the rescue workers as civilians, said on Twitter they 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 Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are known, was founded in 2013 as a network of first responders to rescue wounded people in the aftermath of airstrikes and other attacks during Syria's seven-year conflict between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and insurgents trying to overthrow his government.
The IDF said the evacuation, the first of its kind, was done at the request of the United States, Canada and European countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both asked him in recent days to facilitate the evacuation. "The lives of these people, who have saved lives, were now in danger," Netanyahu said. "I therefore authorized their transfer via Israel to other countries as an important humanitarian gesture."
The U.S. State Department, in a statement, welcomed the rescue of "these brave volunteers, who have saved thousands of lives."
The State Department statement also called on the Assad regime and its ally Russia "to abide by their commitments, end the violence, and protect all Syrian civilians, including humanitarians such as the White Helmets."
Jordan said it authorized the rescue mission, with the civilians to be resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada within three months, due to "a risk to their lives." Initially, Amman said 800 were rescued, but later corrected the figure to 422.
Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, said the evacuees had arrived in Jordan after they were "surrounded in a dangerous region." He said they had been encircled in the Syrian provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, which border Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Britain's Foreign Office said the "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."
But Syria, which considers the White Helmets to be terrorists and has accused them of collaborating with anti-Assad insurgents, called the rescue operation a "scandal" and said Israel's involvement in the evacuation was evidence the White Helmets were cooperating with agents of a Syrian enemy.
Source: Voice of America