At the request of the UK and international partners, who judged that the volunteers “required immediate protection”, Israel said it participated in “a humanitarian effort” by transporting hundreds of White Helmets volunteers from southwest Syria to Jordan.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it engaged in an “out of the ordinary” gesture because of the “immediate risk” to the lives of the civilians, as Russian-backed regime forces closed in on the area.
Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, is a group of responders which rescues injured civilians in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or blasts in rebel-held territory.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt thanked Israel for carrying out the rescue operation, writing on Twitter: “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”.
In a joint statement with International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, the Foreign Secretary said: “Following a joint diplomatic effort by the UK and international partners, a group of White Helmets volunteers from southern Syria and their families have been able to leave Syria for safety. They are now being assisted by the UNHCR in Jordan pending international resettlement”.
The Foreign Secretary paid tribute to the “brave and selfless work” carried out by the volunteers.
There have been conflicting reports on the total number of evacuees; Jordan’s official Petra state news outlet reported that 800 White Helmets personnel and their families were rescued, while BBC news reported that only 422 were evacuated as operations were hindered by the growth of Islamic State in the area.
The volunteers and their families will be resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada.
The operation began in Quneitra on Saturday evening, reaching its peak after midnight. The evacuees arrived at the border with Israel, and the IDF unlocked the gates and let them pass. Medical treatment was provided to those in need, and the evacuees were provided with food and water.
The humanitarian workers and their families then boarded buses waiting for them at the site. The army and police blocked roads in the area, allowing the convoy to pass with no obstruction.
An individual involved in the rescue reportedly said that the effort was “one of the most moving operations. There were lots of children”.
In recent years Israel has been involved in a huge humanitarian relief operation to keep thousands of Syrians along the border from starving or falling ill due to the lack of food and basic medical care.
Israel has treated thousands of people in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, in northern Israel, since 2013. Since 2016, as part of Operation Good Neighbour, over 600 Syrian children, accompanied by their mothers, have come to Israel for treatment and hundreds of tonnes of food, medical equipment and clothing have also been sent across the border to Syria.