Israel's disaster insurance policy

Why the IDF's search and rescue operation is among the finest in the world.

bar on search rescue 88 (photo credit: )
bar on search rescue 88
(photo credit: )
There was one image that Egyptians could not stomach: Israelis in IDF uniforms operating on their sovereign soil. We may see it as an attempt to help. They see it as an awareness of their own limitations. But this changed on October 7, 2004, when Col. (res.) Gideon Bar-on led the IDF's Search and Rescue unit into the collapsed remains of the Taba Hilton that Islamic terrorists had destroyed by a car bomb laden with 600 kilograms of explosives. This well-oiled emergency machine, honed by over two decades of global experience, ran headlong into the Third World of Egypt. At the time, initial delays were blamed on Israeli arrogance shown by members of the rescue unit, some of whom showed up without passports, demanding to be let in as if they were not actually crossing into a foreign country. Initial suspicions quickly evaporated when the Egyptians realized the enormity of the calamity. But reflecting on the event a year later, Bar-on believes that his unit's actions and cooperation with the Egyptians actually helped improve relations between the two countries. "The moment we started to work a dialogue began with them and we warmed the relations with the Egyptians. Our work removes barriers," Bar-on says. Some would argue that the release of Israeli Azzam Azzam from Egyptian prison shortly afterwards, having served eight years on charges of spying for Israel, was the result of the warm relations developed through the Taba evacuation efforts. Bar-on, 46, is a self-described "bulldog," a bear of a man who looks like he could play linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Nobody could stop me in Egypt. I am the head of a pyramid because behind me is a whole network of devoted people pushing," he recalls recently. Bar-on says he was made the overall commander of the rescue operation with two Egyptian brigadier generals under him. The explosion was blamed on al-Qaida operatives in Sinai who carried out nearly simultaneous attacks at two other Sinai resorts, killing 34 people, including 10 Israelis. With decades of experience behind them, one of the first things the Israelis did was put together as accurate a picture of who was where at the moment disaster struck. They call it "population intelligence." As in all tragedies, it is difficult to know exactly who is trapped and who may have succeeded in getting away but is still missing. The first thing the intelligence officer sought out was the breakfast list, guests who confirmed they were going to dine in the morning. This way, they had a pretty good guess who was in the hotel at the time of the bombing. Although no survivors were found, the IDF rescue team, with its yellow helmets and sniffing dogs, recovered 14 bodies. But it also delivered a powerful message that the Israeli army is willing to save its citizens from any disaster in the world. BASED NEAR Ramle, the IDF Home Front's National Search and Rescue Unit boasts an unlimited budget and is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. Its soldiers and officers are on constant alert 24 hours a day to report anywhere in the world. It's one of the most sought-after units by reservists, who once they get in never want to leave. And they carry no weapons. "We aren't engaged in any flanking movements or targeted interceptions. We are saving lives. We are the pearl of the IDF. We don't have any weapons, not because we are pacifists but because we are humanitarians," says Bar-on. He insists that the unit will only appear in uniform as representatives of the Israel Defense Forces. "We are not prostitutes. We don't hide our uniforms. Everywhere we go we wear them. Even in Egypt," he says during a recent visit with the unit. He is raging. He is full of energy. He is on the phone, his beeper is bleeping. "I know things before anyone," he says. "I knew of the bombing in London when it happened." He looks at his beeper. Everyone gazes at him with a mix of worry and yearning. Perhaps it is another horrible earthquake somewhere in the world? Perhaps a train crash? A hotel bombing? "It's my wife. She says to pick up two liters of milk," he jokes. But he is seriously in charge of one of the most visible IDF units around the world. "People know me. I get phone calls telling me about new equipment," says Bar-on, showing off a special camera affixed to an extendable pipe that can be placed into a hole drilled into rubble. It has a microphone and speaker to communicate with trapped victims. The National Search and Rescue Unit was born over two decades ago after the 1982 disaster in Tyre, Lebanon, when a blast totally destroyed a seven-story headquarters used by the IDF and Shin Bet. Some 127 Israeli security personnel and 33 Arab detainees were buried in the rubble. Rescue work was slow and disorganized, with soldiers digging with their bare hands to reach comrades. The final death toll was 89, 76 of them Israelis. Then chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan called on his old friend Col. Gabriel "Gavrush" Rappaport to set up a unit specifically to deal with these types of emergencies. Rappaport, a hero from the War of Independence who broke through the Burma Road to besieged Jerusalem, set about sifting through over 1,500 candidates for the 300-person battalion. The Home Front Command actually has "dozens" of battalions whose aim is to rescue people from rubble caused by war or natural disasters. But the National Search and Rescue Unit is considered the elite of them all. Today, reservists are chosen for the unit who have civilian training that can significantly enhance rescue efforts. Some are building contractors, others are engineers or have other technical backgrounds. The officers have beepers and phones and are in constant contact with events around the world. "It's a bug. Once you save someone's life it's addictive," Bar-on says. The worst punishment is to threaten to remove someone from the unit. Bar-on doesn't hide the fact that the unit is willing to step into world tragedies to its own advantage to gain experience, and one of the reasons they quickly offer their expertise around the world is to "practice on the goyim. So what." Pushed by an altruistic desire to help, but not hiding its thirst for rare on-hand experience, the National Search and Rescue Unit began chalking up a list of operations across the globe. They helped rescue people trapped in earthquakes in Mexico City in 1984 and in Armenia in 1988. In 1992, they traveled to Buenos Aires to help rescue operations after the bombing of the Israeli embassy. In 1998, they joined rescue efforts in Nairobi, Kenya after the US embassy there was bombed. One of its more dramatic rescue operations came in 1999 in Turkey when they rescued nine-year-old Israeli tourist Shiran Franco after she was buried for over 100 hours under the ruins. "Because of our vast experience, every Jew or Israeli who finds themselves trapped knows that there is a unit who cares about them and no matter how long it takes we will do everything we can to save them," Bar-on says. "We are the insurance policy of the Jewish world." Bar-on took over the unit five years ago and commanded the rescue operation of the Versailles banquet hall that collapsed in Jerusalem in 2001 during a wedding celebration. They also took part in the rescue of survivors and the recovery of bodies when a two-story building collapsed as the result of a gas canister explosion in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv in June 2003. They did not go to New Orleans to help with rescue efforts there following Hurricane Katrina, but only because there were no major buildings destroyed and their expertise was not required. The National Search and Rescue Unit is one of the very few units in the IDF which is directly answerable to the chief of General Staff. Bar-on says that Israel is a "superpower" when it comes to saving people from disasters. "Only a superpower can field this kind of warehouse," he says sweeping his arm around. "Look at this, I have my choice of vehicles. Ever seen another unit like this in the IDF?" he says sweeping his hand over a collection of jeeps, trucks and vans. Some new, some older than most soldiers. All in perfect condition. His operations officer Maj. Lior pulls out a shelf from a specially designed International truck, with all the equipment in easy access: hoses, generators and gas canisters. They show off a trailer especially built for them with a huge Israeli flag on it that can be lifted by helicopters or quickly stuffed inside a cargo plane to be transported anywhere. The unit has three full companies plus a headquarters company. It has 11 doctors, one of them a woman, and 35 medics and paramedics. It is a battalion, but really a skeleton of a brigade with numerous senior officers. Bar-on says that his company commanders can take command of a battalion of troops allocated to him to help clear sites. The reserve unit is in one of the highest states of readiness of all units in the IDF. Every reservist travels with his kit in the car or in his pack, including uniform, yellow rescue helmet and gloves. In the event of a tragedy, a third of the unit goes directly to the site, and the other two thirds to the base to pick up equipment. In Versailles, they were in operation in less than three hours. "There is a lot of interest in our unit around the world. They all want to know how we set up and to draw from our experience," Bar-on said. While other countries, like Britain and France, have rescue units, they are part of the fire department or other local organization. There is only one other country that has a national rescue unit and that is Turkey. That unit was set up and trained by the IDF as a result of the devastating earthquakes there. Bar-on does not spare his criticism with the attitude of the British toward the victims following this summer's terrorists bombings in London. He said that if he had been in charge of the evacuation he would have been out there within an hour digging up the road to get to the bodies. The British took over a week to reach the bodies trapped in the subway where one of the bombs exploded. Bar-on tried to explain, but couldn't, the extreme sensitivity Jews have to get the bodies out. "We spare no effort to rescue everyone and then to get the bodies," he says. "Wherever tragedy strikes we will be there."