An Israeli-led operation on July 22 successfully rescued 422 Syrian civil defense workers and their families. Nevertheless, White Helmets — a Syria-based volunteer organization — whose personnel the IDF saved from an impending attack by Russian-backed regime forces in southwest Syria, neglected to mention Israel in its official statement. While the organization’s motive may be unknown, the omission of the word “Israel” in its press release is used by critics to perpetuate a whitewashing allegation: Israel employs international aid to distract from its treatment of Palestinians. Syrian journalist Basheer al-Baker is one such critic, writing in London-based, pan-Arab newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that “Israel has exploited the operation of securing [the White Helmets’] passage toward Jordan to whitewash their own image.” This assumption of an ulterior motive on Israel’s part thereby “justifies” the White Helmets’ lack of acknowledgement.
The efficacy of the operation was due to the unprecedented collaboration between Israel and the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, and the United Nations. With the backing of these powers, the IDF conducted the emergency evacuation, transporting the White Helmets via Israel to Jordan. In line with its humanitarian ethos, Israel immediately provided the evacuees with medical treatment, food, and water. Working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Jordan has allowed the workers and their families to temporarily remain in the country until they can be resettled in Canada, Britain, and Germany. In a tweet, Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote, “these are people who have saved lives and whose lives were in danger. Therefore, I approved their passage through Israel to additional countries, as an important humanitarian gesture.” Statements from most other nations involved also expressed the gravity of the mission, as well as heaped praise on Israel.
Jason Greenblatt, U.S. special representative for international negotiations wrote, “Last night Israel conducted a daring humanitarian rescue from Syria of hundreds of White Helmets personnel and their families.” Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs wrote, “Our thanks to Israel, Jordan, U.S., U.K., Germany and our other partners who have worked closely with Canada to make the evacuation of [the White Helmets] possible.” Jeremy Hunt, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs wrote, “Thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request.” Even Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, with whom Israel has had tense relations, wrote that the EU “recognises the essential efforts of Israel, Jordan and all others who contributed to bringing [the White Helmets] to safety.”
In sharp contrast, the White Helmets posted an eight-paragraph press release to Twitter the day after hundreds of its workers were saved by Israel that did not so much as acknowledge the IDF’s pivotal role. It did, however, thank Canada, Britain, and Germany (the three countries that agreed to resettle the White Helmets and their families), by name. One can speculate as to the White Helmets’ motive: Israel may have requested not to be mentioned in the official statement to avoid backlash from Syria, a country with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, as well as from other hostile actors in the Middle East. This is reflective of previous Israeli actions in Syria: In undercover aid missions to Syria, the NGO Israel Flying Aid deployed native Arab speakers, removed its logo, and posed as a European relief agency. Alternatively, White Helmets could just as well have been motivated by their own political biases or acted out of fear of Assad Iran, and Hezbollah’s political biases. Regardless, not giving credit where it is due provides fodder to those who peddle conspiracies about Israeli “malintentions.”
Accusing Israel of using the lives of civil defense workers in Syria to distract from the occupation is especially offensive given the consistent humanitarian work that Israel has performed over the duration of the Syrian Civil War. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot reported that 26 million shekels in aid have been allocated to Syria. The Israeli army transfers food (more than 360 tons thus far) over the Israel-Syria border, assists in infrastructure development, and provides medical services (approximately 3,000 wounded civilians have received Israeli medical care). Nevertheless, undue criticism of its efforts endures. Palestinian activist and writer Abir Kopty penned an op-ed entitled, “There is nothing genuine about Israel’s humanitarian aid to Syrians,” for the Middle East Eye, in which she claims that aid is used “to whitewash Israel’s record of occupation and human rights violations.” Kopty further argues that “humanitarian aid is always followed by a propaganda effort to tell the world how ‘Israel is human,’ something that is far from reality.” The author seemingly ignores the fact that, according to a report by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mashav (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) has, “over the last 26 years … sent out 15 aid missions to countries struck by natural disasters. Immediately upon arriving in these countries, IDF doctors set up field hospitals. Overall, medical care was given to more than 2,300 people in afflicted areas, and 220 were saved from certain death.” Could all of this Israeli humanitarian work be a publicity stunt? Many of the 140 countries that have been the beneficiaries would likely argue to the contrary. Nevertheless, Israel cannot escape accusations of whitewashing.
Those who accuse Israel of whitewashing are committing the very transgression that they accuse Israel of committing: Treating victims of tragedies as political pawns. Rather than concentrate on alleviating suffering, these accusers use victims to construct a narrative of Israeli machination. To effectively push back against the occupation is to call Israel out when it is in the wrong, not when it is clearly in the right. The White Helmets’ lack of acknowledgement of Israel’s leadership role in this operation has been appropriated to inveigh unsubstantiated charges against Israel.