What’s gained when White Helmet rescuers are rescued

Israel, Jordan, and many other countries joined to save a group of famous volunteer aid workers in the Syrian war, proving the reach of humanitarian law in protecting the innocent.

Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File
This June 14, 2017, photo, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows a civil defense worker carrying a child after airstrikes hit a school housing a number of displaced people in the western part of the southern Daraa province of Syria. The Israeli military said Sunday it had rescued members of a Syrian volunteer civil organization, known as White Helmets, from the volatile frontier area, the first such Israeli intervention in Syria's lengthy civil war.

It was a daring rescue of some of the world’s most daring rescuers.

Over the weekend, a team of countries worked together to arrange the evacuation of volunteer rescue workers known as White Helmets from immediate threat in Syria.

For years the volunteers, officially called the Syria Civil Defense and famous for their white hard hats, have rushed to save civilians trapped in the rubble caused by airstrikes from Syrian warplanes. Their work has saved as many as 100,000 lives and was made famous in an Oscar-winning documentary.

Now, about 100 of the White Helmets along with their families had to be saved from the rubble of a war that has become the most dangerous place on earth for health-care providers.

The symbolism of the rescue should not be lost.

The Syrian regime, along with its allies, Russia and Iran, has directly targeted selfless relief workers, including the estimated 3,000 White Helmet volunteers, using people’s need for health care as a weapon against them. Thousands of aid workers have been killed or forced to flee the country.

The attacks are a clear violation of humanitarian law that requires respect and safety for neutral aid workers in a war zone in order to tend to the injured. That long-held international norm, written into the Geneva Conventions, is a recognition of the innocence of noncombatants in a conflict and the need to preserve life during war.

The rescue shows just how ingrained this norm has become – even to the point that Israel and an Arab state, Jordan, collaborated in the effort.

At the request of the United States and European countries, Israel opened its border with Syria to help transport the besieged group of 422 people to Jordan. “The [White Helmets] are the bravest of the brave and in a desperate situation this is at least one ray of hope,” tweeted Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary.

In addition, several nations, including Canada, Germany, and Britain, promised Jordan – which is already overwhelmed with some 1.3 million Syrian refugees – that they would resettle the volunteers and their family members in their countries.

Syria’s seven-year war is just one place where the world must put its arms around the innocent. In the past six years, more armed groups have emerged than in the previous six decades, threatening both civilians and aid workers, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

One purpose of humanitarian law is to create a safe space for people, especially during a conflict, to remember that what unites them is far greater than what tries to divide them. The rescue is a positive example of the law’s reach in protecting people. 

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