JERUSALEM – The Israeli military said on Sunday it had rescued members of a Syrian volunteer civil organization from the volatile border area on the Golan Heights and evacuated them to a third country.
The announcement marked the first such Israeli intervention in Syria’s civil war, now in its eight year.
The military said it was an “exceptional humanitarian gesture” that was done at the request of the United States and its European allies due to “an immediate threat to (Syrians’) lives.”
Israeli media reported that some 800 members of the Syrian rescue organization known as White Helmets and their families were evacuated overnight. The reports say they were transferred to Jordan and would travel on from there to Britain, Germany and Canada.
In Jordan, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that 800 Syrian citizens have indeed entered their territory to be resettled in Western countries. The ministry’s spokesman Mohammed al-Kayed said the Syrians would remain in Jordan for three months.
“The request was approved based on pure humanitarian reasons,” he said.
The Israeli military said its actions did not reflect a change to Israel’s non-intervention policy in Syria’s war, where all the warring parties are considered hostile.
U.S. officials had said they were finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and their families from southwest Syria as Russian-backed government forces closed in on the Quneitra province.
The officials said the White Helmets, who have enjoyed backing from the United States and other Western nations for years, were likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retook control of the southwest. Evacuation plans were accelerated after last week’s NATO summit in Brussels.
Since the Syrian government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier with the Golan Heights has been the safest in the southwestern region, attracting hundreds of displaced people because it is along the disengagement line with Israel demarcated in 1974 after a war.
The Syrian government is unlikely to fire there or carry out airstrikes for fear of an Israeli response.
The White Helmets typically have operated in opposition-held areas across Syria, places where government services are almost non-existent, voluntarily risking their lives to save hundreds of civilian lives during relentless government airstrikes and bombardments.
Over the last month, Syrian government forces aided by Russian air power have swept through southwestern Syria to consolidate government control over this strategic corner of the country that straddles the border with Jordan and the frontier with Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
With its new advances, government forces are, for the first time since the civil war began in 2011, retaking this territory from the rebels and restoring their positions along the disengagement line on the frontier with Israel that’s part of a cease-fire agreement reached in 1974 between the two countries formally still at war.