Israel’s rapid response to the disaster in Haiti and the success of its experienced emergency team in saving many lives has drawn extensive media coverage, and has become a major source of pride in the Jewish community.
The Israel Defense Forces sent 220 personnel to the Caribbean island on Jan. 15, three days after a 7.0-scale earthquake devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. The team included 40 doctors, 20 nurses and paramedics, search-and-rescue teams with trained dogs and other specialists.
In addition to the army team, Israeli volunteers from the Hadassah Medical Organization and the rescue group Zaka, formed in response to terror attacks, and a team from IsraAid, an umbrella group of Israeli relief organizations are also in Port-au-Prince.
IsraAid volunteers treated a 6-year-old girl who was pulled from the rubble of her apartment building and later transferred her to the IDF field hospital, where she was expected to survive. The Hadassah team set up a field hospital in a soccer stadium and operated on more than 70 people over 36 hours, the organization reported.
Other nations participating in the relief effort with personnel or goods, in varying degrees, include Canada, Egypt, France, China, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Iran and Georgia. Many others have pledged funds to help.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Assaf Shariv said there had been four births at the IDF hospital, with two of those infants still in incubators. The army doctors were also caring for a 7-month-old girl who had been pulled from rubble after several days. “The question is what to do with her,” said Shariv. “She has no family, no one knows anything about her.”
Attempts to reach several Israeli commanders and officials working in Haiti were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
Shachar Zahavi, founder and coordinator of IsraAid, said he expected another 15 doctors to leave for Haiti on Saturday.
Shariv said that while the initial deployment of the team was two weeks, the Israeli medics were likely to stay as long as needed, with personnel being rotated home. He said supplies were being shuttled by truck from the airport in Santo Domingo, in the neighboring Dominican Republic, to the team in Port-au-Prince, where there is no power in most of the city.
“It’s a very big operation, but we don’t have a chopper to send everyone where we want,” he said. “It’s very dangerous.” Shariv said the Israeli government was minimally coordinating with the U.S. team there, with a focus on water delivery.
As details emerged, pro-Israel organizations and individuals this week busily tweeted and e-mailed news of the latest rescues, including two students pulled from the rubble of a university in Port-au-Prince Monday night. The Israel Project, an advocacy group, sent reporters contact information for Israelis on the ground in Haiti.
CNN on Monday reported that the Israeli field hospital in Haiti is the most effective in operation there, and was already performing surgery while other international units were still waiting for equipment. An ABC report detailed how the network’s correspondent, Richard Besser, who is a doctor, helped a pregnant woman save her baby with the help of the Israeli hospital. The grateful mother, who had to undergo an emergency C-section, reportedly said she would be naming the baby Israel.
“Media-wise it’s been a very successful week for Israel,” said Shariv. “Around the world we have gotten some very good press. But we don’t look at it that way. That’s not why we are doing this.”
Shariv said Haitian newspapers had noted the extent of Israel’s aid as considerable given that virtually none of the Jewish state’s citizens were harmed in the earthquake.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said it was the first time he had heard talk of a disproportionate response by Israel in a positive way.
“The U.S. and Israel have been at the forefront of these efforts,” said Hoenlein. “It’s something we should all be proud of.”
While Hoenlein said the relief effort showed “the true Israel and not the lies of the Goldstone Report” — a reference to the United Nations report, authored by Richard Goldstone, that found that Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes in the Gaza war — he said he didn’t believe Israel’s government factored politics and good publicity into the calculus.
“They have done this before, whenever there is a landslide or explosion or natural disaster. I doubt they figured the political benefits, because they usually don’t get any.”
As of Tuesday there were nine short videos of the Israeli teams helping Haitians posted on YouTube, eight of them by the IDF spokesman’s office. In one, Capt. Barak Raz detailed Israel’s effort and said “the IDF believes in being part of the international community’s relief efforts to aid those in need.”
A Twitter feed on the IDF in Haiti on Tuesday had 755 followers.
Closer to home, American Jewish organizations had raised about $5 million for Haiti relief in the first week after the disaster.
Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said his organization had recorded 15,282 donations on Monday, averaging $112, for a total of over $1.7 million in the first week.
“The donations keep coming in at a very rapid clip,” he said. The JDC is a key member of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, a consortium of 30 Jewish organizations and federations that have taken part in responding to one or more catastrophes in recent years. It was first convened following the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
But Recant said the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed more than a quarter-million people, set a new standard for disaster relief, with lessons that are in use today.
“The tsunami was instrumental in setting the stage for how organizations deal with a disaster of this magnitude,” he said.
For example, he said that on the Friday after the earthquake, the coalition held a conference call to discuss local partner organizations in Haiti who could best distribute the funds raised and goods purchased.
“At the time of the tsunami, it was a bit of a chaotic situation and we weren’t able to locate volunteers in a very quick and orderly manner,” said Recant. “This time it will be much quicker.”
Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service, a member of the disaster coalition, said her organization has been working in Haiti since long before the earthquake.
“We have four or five projects where additional funding is needed,” she said. “I would love to see the coalition [spend the money there] to be sure that our giving is strategic and that it goes to reliable organizations.”
As of Tuesday AJWS had sent $250,000 of an estimated $2.4 million raised to its partners in Haiti. n
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