Editor's Notes: Israel to the rescue

There is a lesson for the Palestinians in Israel's Haiti rescue outreach: If you're in trouble and you're not trying to kill us, there's no one like the Israelis to help you out.

January 22, 2010 11:03
Editor's Notes: Israel to the rescue

israaid 224.88. (photo credit: )


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Israel went into action the moment the scale of last Tuesday's earthquake disaster in Haiti began to become clear.

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That same day, the IDF dispatched a five-member preliminary team to establish what assistance Israel could most usefully provide and to work out the logistics for providing it.

While other countries dithered, countries both nearer and far better resourced, Israel utilized the experience born of its previous earthquake rescue missions - to Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Mexico - and got down to business.

By Friday, its field hospital in Port-au-Prince was, literally, operational: Israeli surgeons were saving Haitian lives. Almost a week later, it remained the best hospital in the blighted Haitian capital.

That same Friday, the IDF's canine rescue teams were already searching for survivors in the rubble of a destroyed city, as was the Zaka rescue unit, which quickly extricated eight students from a collapsed university building. It wasn't only earthquake expertise that the Israeli experts were calling upon, of course. It was also the bitter experience learned over years of grappling with Palestinian terrorism.

OUR "LIGHT unto the nations" Haitian relief effort encapsulated much of what is best about our country - and encapsulated certain other aspects of our familiar reality, too.


It demonstrated our heartfelt desire to come to the assistance of others in the time of their greatest need, with no desire or expectation of reward. Crowds of Haitians cheering "Good job, Israel," over and over, as an Israeli team brought a survivor safely out of the wreckage of a Port-au-Prince building earlier in the week; the joyous, impulsive decision of Gubilande Jean Michel to name her new-born son "Israel" after doctors at the field hospital had ensured a healthy delivery - these were all the thanks the rescuers could have wished for. That, and the kind of simple, heartwarming "Shalom"s that our reporter in the disaster zone, E.B. Solomont, received whenever she mentioned that she was working for The Jerusalem Post. Shalom. Hello. Peace. One more Hebrew word than Haitians might have been expected to know.

The Israeli mission to Haiti also underlined our capacity to think and act fast and effectively - to pull together and surmount obstacles at a time of crisis. American TV stations reported that the US initially sent medical staff with no instruments. More than two dozen countries ultimately got involved in the relief effort, but most spent the most precious first hours and days working on plans to help, or running into all kinds of logistical difficulties - including finding the means to physically land their rescue planes in the post-quake chaos at the airport. Meanwhile, the Israeli teams, quietly, efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss, collected their personnel, their equipment and all their other essentials, somehow circumvented or cleared all the obstacles, and went to work.

As this week continued, the prospect of finding survivors diminished. But even when local Haitians called out to an IDF crew at one locale on Monday that "they are all dead," the rescue teams insistently maintained their search. A senior Israeli medical official had acknowledged early in the week that finding survivors as long as five days after such a disaster was just about possible, and after six days almost impossible. But day six came and went, and still the teams criss-crossed the capital. And they were vindicated, with survivors still pulled from the wreckage on day seven.

The US and others will doubtless contribute a great deal more than Israel can to the long-term process of rebuilding Haiti, but the Israeli medical efforts will also continue long after the international media spotlight has moved on. For while the hunt for survivors may be drawing to a close, the medical needs are far from fully addressed. As of mid-week, well over 2,000 people had found their way to the field hospital. IsraAID/FIRST and Magen David Adom teams were also overwhelmed at the scale of the requirements, with the IsraAID team treating 700 injured Haitians in the first four days of its work. Many Israeli medical personnel expect to be on the ground in Haiti for weeks more.

THE ISRAELI teams certainly didn't go out seeking glory, but their mission also constituted extraordinary public relations.

The powers-that-be here had decided that one Israeli newspaper, one Israeli TV station and one Israeli radio station would be chosen, ostensibly by lottery, to send a representative to fly out with the Israeli rescue teams and distribute text, audio and TV footage for their colleagues. To the surprise of nobody at all, the Israeli newspaper that "won" the lottery just happened to be the powerful Yediot Aharonot; to the surprise of nobody at all at the Post, our efforts to explain to the authorities that it might be in Israel's interest to have a journalist there who could write and speak English, and tell the story of the Israeli effort to the watching English-speaking world, fell on deaf ears.

Fortunately, Solomont, our indefatigable New York correspondent, got to the scene fast and, although Israeli diplomats in the neighboring Dominican Republic were less than helpful, American diplomats in Haiti helped her out, and she was graciously looked after by the IDF mission once she had arrived in Port-au-Prince, so no harm was done to our capacity to report. Officially hosted Yediot Aharonot, meanwhile, decided that a lawsuit filed by a former employee of Sarah Netanyahu merited as much coverage on the front page of its newspaper last weekend as the deaths of tens of thousands of Haitians and the efforts of Israeli rescue to save and treat the survivors.

Fortunately, too, the sheer efficiency and expertise of the Israelis, flying in from 16 hours away, when contrasted with the relatively slow response and meager capabilities of some other nations, proved a news story that international outlets happened upon by themselves. NBC's Nightly News ran a three-minute feature on the Israeli field hospital, reported by its chief medical correspondent Nancy Snyderman, MD, who termed the Israeli field hospital "the model of medical disaster response." Snyderman highlighted its vital neo-natal intensive-care unit - "that can handle Haiti's most vulnerable" - and showed a young father there keeping watch on his tiny baby, the sole survivor of triplets.

CBS branded the Israeli hospital the "Rolls Royce" of medical installations in Haiti. A BBC report hailed the Israeli rescue efforts. ABC sent a letter of thanks after the Israeli hospital delivered a baby to a woman whom its own reporter, a doctor, had first tried to help himself.

Most awestruck of all was Elizabeth Cohen, a CNN correspondent in Port-au-Prince. On Monday, Cohen came across American doctors at another, hopelessly ill-equipped hospital and heard directly from Dr. Jennifer Furin, from Harvard Medical School, speaking on camera there, that her patients were dying "a slow death from their rotting flesh because the infections are out of control and they need surgery."

"The situation is beyond desperate at this point," said Furin. "Patients were so thankful to have lived through the quake and now they're slowly dying in these hospitals."

Added Furin: "No one except the Israeli hospital has taken any of our patients."

Intrigued, Cohen went to check out the IDF field hospital for herself. "I'm just amazed at what's here. This is like another world compared to the other hospital," she marveled as she walked from Israeli tent to tent. "My God, they have machines here! They have actual operating rooms! It's just amazing!"

Back with Dr. Furin, Cohen asked: "So the Israelis have set up a field hospital. Have the Americans, has the American government, set up a field hospital?"

Furin: "Currently, not yet."

Cohen: "The Israelis came from the other side of the world?!"

Furin, spreading her hands in bafflement: "It's a frustrating thing that I really can't explain."

Another American doctor chipped in: "It makes you almost embarrassed to be an American."

JUST AS there were those who rose up to criticize America for a purported heavy-handed takeover of the Haiti relief effort, there were some, too, who turned on Israel for its response to the disaster.

A few critics within Israel asserted that we had, in the words of one Ynet Internet columnist, "raced to be first" simply to garner PR points, and, "like Everest climbers," had placed our "national flag at the peak to prove that the site has been conquered," but that our rescue effort had been of little real value.

Considerably more perniciously, one T. West from Seattle posted a video on YouTube reiterating the lie of Israeli organ harvesting, and urging Haitians to beware that they not fall victim, which was quickly picked up by anti-Israel Web sites.

Here and abroad, predictably, there were also those who accused Israel of hypocrisy over the disaster, claiming that we rush across the world to save some people while oppressing others on our own doorstep.

This, too, of course, is all part of the familiar Israeli reality - of charge, and counter-charge, and distortion.

We can argue endlessly, and do, about the policies we adopt when grappling with the Palestinians. But there is one thing that our Haiti rescue outreach made emphatically clear, and that the Palestinians might want to ponder: If you're in trouble and you're not trying to kill us, there's no one like the Israelis to help you out.

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