An Israel Defense Forces commander recalls standing on the Syria-Israel border and seeing the terrified families of the volunteers from White Helmets. “When they reached the border with Israel, their eyes were filled with tears of happiness,” he says.
When Israel evacuated the Syria Civil Defense volunteers and their families last weekend, it was an operation that made the public here proud, and it won international applause.
America’s Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, enthused that the IDF deserves “special commendation” after managing “to pull this operation together quickly and were focused on saving as many people as possible.”
The 422 people were only in Israel for a short time, before making their way to Jordan, where they will remain for a few weeks before heading to Britain, Germany or Canada. But Israel provided the all-important escape from the immediate danger of Syria.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt lauded the “fantastic news,” adding: “Thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request.”
At the Federal Foreign Office in Germany, Minister Niels Annen tweeted an Israeli flag and a message: “Thank you, Israel.” Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs thanked Israel, calling the White Helmets “courageous volunteers and first responders who risk their lives to help their fellow Syrians.”
And so, in a week when Israel has been under intense criticism for its legislature — which tacked rightward in a series of moves that angered many at home and abroad — the country’s military enjoyed a rare stint of being lauded as a guardian of humanitarian values. And it is well-deserved.
In a dark humanitarian tragedy, the White Helmets have represented a glimmer of inspiration. As powerful leaders sat in their offices and issued directives that put so many normal people in danger, these men and women left their offices and workshops, and ran into perilous situations to save others.
The video footage of Israeli soldiers helping the White Helmets and their families evokes great pride. They are seen guiding the cute children and the women in headscarves onto buses, and serving them water.
“These are people who have saved lives and whose lives were in danger,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Therefore, I approved their passage through Israel to additional countries, as an important humanitarian gesture.”
The White Helmets needed Israel after the forces of Syria’s President Bashar Assad rampaged towards Syria’s southern border in a major drive against rebels, getting ever closer to Israel. It’s an advance that has been felt in Israel over recent days, with a disturbing increase in spillover from the civil war.
Israel is on “high alert,” after a Syrian fighter jet entered Israeli air space on Tuesday, and two Syrian missiles hurtled towards Israel the day before.
Shortly after the downing of the jet, United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said that there has been “a disturbing trajectory of increasingly frequent and dangerous confrontations” between Israel and Syria.
The IDF announced that the Syrian plane reached several miles inside Israeli airspace, and “it was then intercepted by Patriot missiles.” The missiles prompted Israel to use, for the first time, its David’s Sling aerial defense system.
The incident with the jet was a major breach of understandings between Israel and Syria — understandings which Jerusalem hopes are being policed by Russia. “This is a gross violation of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement with Syria,” said Netanyahu. “I have reiterated and made clear that we will not accept any such violation.
“We will not accept any such penetration of, or spillover into, our territory, neither on the ground nor in the air. Our forces acted appropriately. We insist that the Syrians strictly abide by the Separation of Forces Agreement between us and them.”
For Israelis, Assad’s approach and growing spillover from the Syria fighting raises deep concerns. While most do not believe that Assad is interested, at this time, in clashing with Israel, they know that if spillover gets out of hand, or if it causes Israeli casualties or deaths, their leaders will feel forced to respond, which could lead to a major escalation. And this is without getting to the heart of the main Israeli concern, namely that of Iran becoming entrenched in areas that Assad retakes.
There is another ramification for Israelis of Assad getting closer. It puts many of their country’s humanitarian efforts in danger. Aid going over the border has been distributed in rebel-held areas, but what will happen when they are all controlled by Assad? And what about medical treatment that Israel has given to busloads of Syrians arriving from areas held by the opposition; will this flow stop?
Tragically, the approach of Assad to the Israeli border might mark the beginning of the end for Israel’s laudable efforts to help Syrians close to its border. Hopefully, creative ways to continue will be found, but it will be hard. The White Helmets made it out to safety thanks to the IDF, but it may well be that the first great rescue over the Israeli border will also be the last.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.