Rescuing the White Helmets

The spectacular rescue operation bringing the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, to safety has once again highlighted Israel’s policy of providing humanitarian aid even in unfriendly countries like Syria.

Acting on the request of the United States and other allies, Israel facilitated the transit of some 400 White Helmets and their families to Jordan, which has sealed its border to refugees but agreed to serve as a station on the way to more permanent haven in Britain, Canada and Germany.

Their lives were believed to be in immediate danger from the forces of the Assad regime now sweeping through southwest Syria. While the West has recognized the White Helmets as neutral emergency aid workers who have saved an estimated 115,000 lives during the eight-year war, Damascus and Moscow have branded them as foreign “agents” abetting the rebels. A government offer of amnesty to noncombatants in the region being reconquered has pointedly excluded the White Helmets.

They have been accused of faking chemical weapons attacks for the cameras in order to feed the propaganda machine of the rebels, and of collaborating with the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front.

The Russian news agency Sputnik, displaying a logic that might befuddle even IBM’s Debater, argued the claims of chemical attacks were not credible, given that Syria’s “weapons stockpiles [were] destroyed long ago under the supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).”

What is far more likely is that it is Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies who are spreading distortions and falsehoods.

Naturally, any group that would dare to go around giving emergency aid to victims of chemical warfare allegedly perpetrated by Damascus, and filming such incidents, would be marked as an enemy of the state. That’s why the White Helmets were fully justified in fearing for their lives, and why western diplomats felt a moral obligation to rescue them.

This story adds to the countless acts of brutality committed by the Syrian regime and its allies against the civilian population. The hope that this war is finally coming to an end, the universal relief felt that soon no more tales of atrocities will be coming out of that country, cannot obscure the incredible ruthlessness of the victors. They will search out and kill not only their vanquished enemies, but also the friends of their enemies.

Which brings us back to Israel. Its role in bringing out the White Helmets was lauded by the United States, Britain and the European Union.

“We deeply appreciate Israel’s role in facilitating the transit of the White Helmets and their family members,” said State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert.

“Fantastic news that we — U.K. and friends — have secured evacuation of White Helmets and their families. Thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request,” tweeted British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Even European Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, usually distinguished by her icy criticism of Israel, said, “The EU recognizes the essential efforts of Israel and Jordan, and of all others — including several EU Member States — who contributed to bringing the White Helmets and their families to safety.”

The praise is deserved. But the value of such expressions of appreciation in the international community is typically short-lived. The plaudits for then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after the evacuation of Jewish communities from Gaza faded as quickly as Hamas transformed the sites into launching areas for rockets and missiles.

Israel’s many humanitarian missions abroad have won recognition from the multitudes of people whose lives were saved and who received medical treatment and vital supplies after their homes were wrecked by earthquakes and floods.

“In only 54 years, Israel has provided humanitarian aid to over 140 countries,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proudly states. Yet, the anti-Israeli voting patterns of those disaster-stricken countries have demonstrated little, if any, change.

In the U.N. General Assembly vote declaring “null and void” President Donald Trump’s recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital, only Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo voted with Israel and the United States.

Among the lopsided majority that voted for the condemnation were Haiti, Rwanda, Panama, Paraguay, Phillippines, and Cameroon — all of whom have received humanitarian aid from Israel at one time or another.

Of course, countries vote according to their national interests, and gratitude for help in tough times must often take a back seat to other considerations, like economic or diplomatic retaliation from powerful states in the anti-Israel bloc. (And, of course, there is a little-recognized factor known as ingratitude.)

Israeli diplomats argue that the good will generated by these aid missions is often registered in behind-the-scenes negotiations, even if the public stance remains the same.

That may well be.

But without doubt, giving life-saving help to the victims of oppression or natural disaster is the right thing to do.

What happens after that is for the diplomats.