Sunday 24 January 2010

Israelis in Haiti - the Irony of the Situation

The Israeli government and the Israel Defence Force (IDF) dispatched an El Al plane to Haiti in the days immediately following the devastating earthquake that occurred there on 12th January 2010. An IDF medical team of 121 arrived in Haiti including 40 doctors, 20 nurses, 20 paramedics and 20 lab and X-ray technicians. In addition, 2 search and rescue teams were on the flight, along with hundreds of kilograms of medical and rescue equipment and emergency rations.

Nobody in Israel was surprised to hear of the emergency mission that was assembled in a very short space of time to go to a far-flung location. After all, this is not the first time that Israel has deployed emergency teams to locations which have experienced national disasters. We have even had the honour of having our proposed help rejected when offered to countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Despite the ongoing challenges to Israeli national security and attempts by our enemies to destroy us, Israel is frequently willing and able to assemble a team of expert professionals and ship them off to help others in need. Perhaps it is precisely because of these threats that Israel is able to get an emergency team together so quickly. This team not only has excellent training, unfortunately it also has experience in real emergency situations and has a track record of being able to respond to such situations quickly and efficiently.

It is only Israel and Russia who have been able to establish field hospitals in Haiti so far. An American hospital ship has been sent to the region but the Americans, along with the rest of the world, have failed to put any emergency medical facilities on the ground until now. I have watched the media reports coming out of Haiti with some interest. I have enjoyed seeing reports covering the Israeli field hospital on all international news networks, and hearing about those who have been rescued and helped and those whose lives have been saved. I have been amused to see Haitian children on TV who have passed through the Israeli facility and who are wearing T-shirts with Hebrew writing emblazoned across the front. I was moved to hear of the baby that was born in an Israeli field hospital, and named Israel. I was immensely proud to hear the story of an Israeli medical worker who, without giving it a second thought, transfused blood from her own arm into that of a Haitian child in order to save a life. This is the best demonstration of true Jewish and Israeli values.

The stories coming out of the Israeli medical facility in Haiti raise a number of ironies. The first irony is how come Israel and Russia are the only two countries in the world who have set up medical facilities in Haiti? The medical requirements in Haiti are far beyond what these two facilities can cope with, and Haitians who survived the initial earthquake are now dying of disease and illness. So why are there not medical facilities being established by all of the wealthier countries? It seems strange that the response has been so slow and so small from those countries that have the means and ability to respond, especially those whose resources are not devoted to fighting wars on their borders.

The second irony concerns the response, or lack of it, from the Arab world. The population of the Arab world exceeds 350 million people and the wealth that is contained in this part of the world arising from the huge amounts of oil is substantial. So where is the humanitarian aid from the Arab world? Why is it that they cannot share the burden of looking after people in their hour of need? By not stepping up to help in this effort and other emergencies like it, the Arab world simple burden the rest of the world with a disproportionate share of responsibility. If a country with a population of 7 million people can lend its support, it seems to me logical that assistance from the Arab world can also be offered.

A further irony for me is that Israel's enemies have taken the opportunity of the good work done by Israel in Haiti to continue to bash Israel. John Smithson, a reader on the Mondoweiss site wrote, "I guess giving Israel credit for good deeds in Haiti is like watching a serial killer or other sociopathic type mow an old woman's lawn (or some other charitable thing)." Palestinian-American journalist Ray Hanania wrote of the Israeli aid effort this week: "200,000 Haitians died in an earthquake. They sent doctors and supplies to help. That is a good thing. Just because we are fighting with Israel doesn't mean we should sneer at that assistance to people in need. YES, I wish Israel could show the same compassion for Palestinians. But Israel and Haiti are not at war and Israelis and Palestinians (mainly Hamas and the settlers) are." I have some news for Mr. Hanania and others like him - despite the fact that Palestinians continue to smuggle bombs and suicide bombers through Israel military checkpoints in ambulances, Israel has treated many hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli hospitals. This includes at the height of periods of war. I have yet to see more compassion shown by other countries towards their enemies who would do all in their power to kill them.

All of this has led many commentators to question how ready Israel is to face a major earthquake on home ground. Given that Israel is built on two major fault lines - the Dead Sea Fault and the Carmel Fault - there is a great deal of speculation regarding when the next "big one" will occur. The last major earthquake in this region took place in 1927 when a quake measuring 6.25 on the Richter Scale killed 300 people and caused extensive damage to buildings, including many holy sites. It is speculated that, statistically, a major earthquake is due in the near future, and that such an earthquake would likely damage around 20% of buildings in Jerusalem. The experts maintain that, in such a quake, 5% of Jerusalem's buildings would be completely destroyed.

Each time I turn on the TV and hear another story about how Israeli emergency services are saving lives and building friendships in Haiti, I can feel the pride building in my chest. I can even tolerate the ridiculous critical comments dished out be Israel-bashers. It is obvious that they are forced to defend their negative positions when the news unexpectedly turns to compliment Israel instead of criticise. It is unfortunate that we have the best skills in the world to deal with emergencies - they have been acquired with blood, sweat and tears. Having acquired the skills, there is no reason in the world why we would not share them with anybody who may need them.

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