Saving lives around the world

The IDF’s Search and Rescue Unit's outgoing head looks back at the past five years and warns of challenges ahead.

BRIG.-GEN. SHALOM BEN-ARYEH 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘It is like witnessing the birth of a child.” With those words, Brig.- Gen. Shalom Ben-Aryeh tries to explain the feeling he gets every time he witnesses a survivor being pulled out from under rubble. “Imagine someone who is close to death being brought back to life. That is the feeling.”
Last Wednesday, Ben-Aryeh, who has served for the past five years as commander of the IDF Home Front Command’s Search and Rescue (SAR) Unit, was standing inside the campus of the Jerusalem College of Engineering overseeing a search-and-rescue exercise. The scenario for which the soldiers were training simulated a car bomb that had infiltrated the campus, detonating and destroying two multi-story buildings.
Soldiers were climbing on top of the mounds of rubble, taking turns digging with their hands and shovels to create little entryways underneath.
Nearby, a heavy bulldozer was pushing away some of the larger boulders.
Seventy-five mannequins were buried underneath, each with a note detailing its “injuries.”
After 41 years in the military, Ben-Aryeh will retire later this month, leaving a job that has taken him to Turkey, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Haiti, India, Kenya and other countries. His job has been simple, he says: “We were always there to save lives.”
But with predictions that in the next war Israel will come under unprecedented fire from missiles with superior range and accuracy, Ben-Aryeh admits that the SAR Unit’s real test is still ahead.
The Israeli National Search and Rescue Unit was established in 1984, a year after the second bombing against Israeli security headquarters in Tyre. The purpose was to create a dedicated and professional unit with expertise in rescuing people trapped beneath leveled buildings.
Over the years, the unit developed unique techniques that turned it into a world leader in SAR. For Ben-Aryeh, the cause of the blast is not as important as is the way the building falls.
“We work with three scenarios when we could be called in to rescue people,” he explains. “Our unit could be activated during a war after missiles strike, during peacetime when there is a mega terrorist attack or when we are sent overseas as part of a humanitarian delegation.”
One overseas deployment that stands out above the rest was in 2010 when Ben- Aryeh led Israel’s humanitarian delegation to Haiti after the devastating earthquake.
Israel later became famous for being the first country to establish a field hospital in Haiti, just three days after the island country was hit by the earthquake.
“When we landed, we immediately got word out that we had cellular phones and on our second day there we received a phone call that someone might be trapped alive under the customs building,” he recalls.
Ben-Aryeh and his team of rescuers arrived at the customs building and did what he says is the first step in any rescue operation: “silencing the scene.”
The second stage was locating the survivor, which they did by calling out to him and waiting to hear his knocking.
The third stage was burrowing a tunnel to the survivor and extricating him from underneath the rubble.
What makes the Israeli SAR unit unique is its development of the “peeling” technique, which it uses to literally peel layer after layer of rubble off of a disaster zone.
In comparison, Ben-Aryeh explains, other Western SAR units work strictly according to the tunnel method.
“The problem is that tunnels can only be used effectively when there is exact intelligence and you know the location of the trapped person,” he says. “But, in many cases, we don’t know where the trapped people are under the rubble and that is why we peel away the layers.”
Five days later, Ben-Aryeh and his team located another survivor who had been trapped for almost 10 days underneath his home. In addition to the two saved from beneath the rubble, the delegation saved another 1,100 Haitians who it treated at the field hospital.
Ben-Aryeh dismisses questions about Israel’s ability to traverse the world and establish a field hospital in just a few days while it took countries located closer to Haiti, like the United States, over a week to do so.
“The rest of the world should ask itself why it took them so long,” he says. “We saw a mission and acted on it.”
Turning to the fallout in Israel from a possible future war, Ben-Aryeh says that the public and media are exaggerating the amount damage that would be caused to the homefront.
He provides an even more optimistic assessment than does Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who recently claimed that less than 500 people would be killed if the public followed the Home Front Command’s instructions.
As an example, Ben-Aryeh mentions the First Gulf War when some 40 Scud missiles hit Israel, causing extensive damage but no direct deaths. (A number of people died from heart attacks and suffocation).
“Even if 1,000 missiles land here but people remain within their bomb shelters and secure rooms and follow the Home Front Command’s instructions, the number of casualties will be even less, maybe a few dozen,” he said.
The real domestic test has yet to come but if it ever does, the SAR unit will be ready.