Good-news stories rarely emerge from the Middle East these days.
Syria is bogged down in a civil war that has cost the country very dearly, and Israel is bombing Iranian bases there. Israel and Hamas are fighting again and might yet go to war for the fourth time in a decade. Iran, Israel’s chief adversary, is threatening to restart its nuclear program. Egypt is embroiled in a war with Sinai Province, an Islamic State affiliate, in the Sinai Peninsula. Islamic State, though pummelled by U.S., Syrian, Iraqi and Russian air strikes, is still operational, both in the Mideast and abroad.
And so it goes.
On July 22, however, a glimmer of light cut through the darkness as Israel saved several hundred Syrian White Helmet rescue workers marooned in southern Syria and threatened with death if they fell into the hands of the Syrian army, which has launched an offensive to recapture land that was lost since the start of the civil war.
Under the supervision of the Israeli army, which described its operation as “an exceptional humanitarian gesture,” Israel brought 422 White Helmet rescue workers and their families to its side of the Golan Heights and transported them in a convoy of buses to Jordan, where they will be housed for three months until they are resettled in Canada, Britain and Germany.
Israel agreed to help the Syrians, crowded into a small pocket of rebel-held territory close to the Israeli border, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received phone calls from several world leaders — U.S. President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May — requesting its assistance in the evacuation of White Helmets.
“These are people who saved lives and were now in mortal danger,” said Netanyahu. “Therefore, I approved their passage through Israel to additional countries as an important humanitarian gesture.”
The Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets, was founded five years ago as a network of first responders to rescue wounded civilians trapped in buildings bombed or shelled by Syria. The White Helmets, having received their basic training in search-and-rescue techniques abroad, have rescued thousands of civilians in areas controlled by the rebels. More than 200 of its volunteers have been killed and about 500 have been wounded.
The work of these brave men and women has been featured in two movies, Last Men in Aleppoand The White Helmets, which won an Academy Award in 2017 for best short documentary.
But to the Syrian the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which is mainly responsible for the carnage in the seven-year-old civil war, the White Helmets are the enemy. In Assad’s skewed view, they are nothing but terrorists. Given Syria’s official position, the White Helmets were in real danger and had to be rescued. Israel plucked them from the jaws of death and gave them a new lease on life.
Although Israel has not accepted Syrian refugees, it has dispatched large quantities of food, medical equipment and clothing to them inside Syria and has treated about 5,000 people, including 600 Syrian children, in field clinics on the border and in public hospitals in the Galilee.
Israel has been doing the right thing by helping Syrians in distress, and its latest humanitarian effort will surely be appreciated by people of good will in the region.