Israel evacuates 800 White Helmets to Jordan in face of Syria advance

Updated 24 July 2018
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Israel evacuates 800 White Helmets to Jordan in face of Syria advance

  • Israeli military said it had completed “a humanitarian effort to rescue members of a Syrian civil organization and their families ... due to an immediate threat to their lives”
  • The evacuation came at the request of the US and several European countries

AMMAN: 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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the operation an “important humanitarian step” and said he ordered it after requests from US President Donald Trump and Canadian premier Justin Trudeau.
Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets, is a network of first responders which rescues the wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or explosions in rebel-held territory.
Jordan “authorized the United Nations to organize the passage of 800 Syrian citizens through Jordan to be resettled in western countries,” foreign ministry spokesman Mohammed Al-Kayed 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’.”
The Israeli military said it had transferred the rescue workers and their families to a neighboring country, adding the operation was “exceptional” and that Israel would continue its “non-intervention policy” in the Syrian conflict.
“A few days ago President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and others approached me with the request to help extract from Syria hundreds of White Helmets,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
“These are people who save lives and now find themselves in deadly danger, therefore I approved bringing them through Israel to another country as an important humanitarian step.”
White Helmets head Raed Saleh said the evacuees had arrived in Jordan after being “surrounded in a dangerous region.”
They had been encircled in the Syrian provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, which respectively border Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, he told AFP.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria in 1967, in a move never recognized internationally.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it had helped facilitate the overnight 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.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Bild newspaper that Germany would take in eight White Helmets members and their families.
The move was “an expression of my stance of ensuring humanity and order in migration policy,” he said.
Canada will take in up to 50 White Helmets volunteers and their families, totalling up to 250 people, the country’s public broadcaster CBC said citing senior officials.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she had “called for global leadership to support and help these heroes” at last week’s NATO summit.
Israel’s Haaretz daily said the evacuees also included orphans who had been injured in the Syrian fighting.
It was unclear how many White Helmet volunteers remained in both the Daraa and Quneitra provinces after the evacuations.
But a volunteer in Daraa city, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had decided to stay despite being given the choice to leave.
“It’s our country and we have a right to live in it in safety,” he told AFP, however adding he was among a minority who wished to remain.
“We are first and foremost a humanitarian organization, not a military one, or a terrorist one as the regime alleges.”
The White Helmets have rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble or caught up in fighting in 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 Qur’an, 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.
On June 19, Syrian government forces launched a 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.
Militants are not party to these deals, and Russian planes bombarded a holdout of the Daesh group in Daraa province overnight, a Britain-based war monitor said.
More than 20,000 civilians have escaped bombardment on the Daesh-held corner in the past 24 hours, fleeing into regime-held areas, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.


Several killed in blast in northwest Syria

Updated 44 min 9 sec ago
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Several killed in blast in northwest Syria

  • It was not clear if the cause of the blast near the market in the town of Jisr Al-Shughur was a car bomb, or a vehicle carrying explosives
  • All except one were civillians

BEIRUT: Fifteen people, all but two civilians, were killed in an explosion in the jihadist-held region of Idlib in northwest Syria on Wednesday, a war monitor said.
The cause of the blast in the town of Jisr Al-Shughur was not immediately clear, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The explosion hit next to the market,” killing 13 civilians, including the daughter of a foreign fighter, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
“It is not known until now whether it was a car bomb, or the explosion of a car carrying explosives,” he added.
The Idlib region is under administrative control of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
But the Turkestan Islamic Party, a group of foreign jihadists from the ethnic Uighur Muslim minority, also has a large presence in Jisr Al-Shughur.
The Islamic State jihadist group has sleeper cells in the wider Idlib region.
Idlib has since September been protected from a massive regime offensive by a fragile cease-fire deal signed by Damascus ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.
But the region of some three million people has come under increasing bombardment since HTS took full control of it in January.
On Tuesday, regime shelling killed seven civilians, including four children, in the town of Khan Sheikhun.
Increased regime shelling on Khan Sheikhun has sparked one of the largest waves of displacement since the September deal.
Syria’s war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since the conflict began with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011.