Syria conflict: Israel evacuates White Helmets

Israel says it has carried out an evacuation of members of Syria’s White Helmets civil defence group from a war zone in south-western Syria.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said they had acted on a request from the US, the UK and other European nations.

Some 422 volunteers and family members were taken to Jordan via the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights overnight.

The White Helmets describe themselves as a volunteer workforce that acts to save people in Syria’s war zones.

Although they operate only in rebel-held areas, they say they are non-partisan.

Supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, and his ally Russia, say the White Helmets support the rebels and also have links to jihadist groups.

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Jordan said it had authorised the passage of 800 people, but it was later reported that several hundred were unable to make the journey.

The evacuated White Helmets had been working in an area controlled by the Syrian opposition in the south-west of the country and had been trapped by a government offensive.

They were driven to the border with the Golan Heights and taken on from there by Israeli troops.

The IDF said they had “completed a humanitarian effort to rescue members of a Syrian civil organisation and their families”, saying there was an “immediate threat to their lives”.

They said the civilians were transferred “through Israel” and “subsequently to a neighbouring country”.

Although Israel is not directly involved in the Syria conflict, the two countries have been in a state of war for decades.

Despite the intervention, the IDF said that “Israel continues to maintain a non-intervention policy regarding the Syrian conflict”.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon later confirmed the evacuees were White Helmet members and their families, though neither he nor the IDF named the country receiving the civilians.

However, Jordan’s government confirmed it had “authorised the United Nations to organise the passage of 800 Syrian citizens through Jordan to be resettled in Western countries”.

It said that “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'”.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt hailed the operation in a tweet:

A later statement from Mr Hunt and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said: “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.”

The UK would provide such protection to “as many of the volunteers and their families as possible”.

“We pay tribute to the brave and selfless work that White Helmet volunteers have done to save Syrians on all sides of the conflict,” the statement read.

The White Helmet members and their families will be held in a “restricted area” of Jordan and assessed by the UN, pending resettlement.

Who are the White Helmets?

  • Began in early 2013 as a volunteer workforce
  • Known officially as Syria Civil Defence
  • About 200 killed out of more than 3,000 volunteer members
  • Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize
  • Act to save people in war zones and carry out repair works on buildings
  • Say they have saved the lives of more than 100,000 people
  • Say they are neutral and have no political affiliation but have been accused of links to jihadist groups by the Syrian government and its Russian allies

The Syrian government began a major offensive in June to retake rebel-held areas in the Deraa and Quneitra areas.

Under a number of agreements, rebel forces have been transferred to rebel-held areas in the north of the country, with the Syrian military then moving in to take control.

The latest deal, agreed on Thursday, saw fighters and civilians evacuated from Quneitra province, which borders the Golan Heights.

source: bbc