The Haiti earthquake:
Israelís humanitarian relief effort, and responses to its accusers

Published: 4 March 2010
Briefing Number 253



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Summary:  This Briefing outlines Israel’s humanitarian relief effort after the earthquake in Haiti.  It also provides responses to two accusations which are being made by some against Israel:

- that Israel exploited the Haiti earthquake for PR purposes, and

- that Israel is two-faced by showing compassion to Haiti while being cruel towards the Palestinians of Gaza

The Haiti earthquake and Israel’s response

On 13 January 2010 a massive earthquake struck the Caribbean island of Haiti.  Over 200,000 people were believed to have died in the disaster, mainly in the city of Port au Prince.  Israel was at the forefront of the international relief effort. Here are some facts about Israel’s contribution:     

Setting up an Israeli field hospital:  Two days after the disaster, Israel set up a fully-functioning, state-of-the-art field hospital in a soccer field in Port au Prince, to treat the injured.  The hospital was set up in this extraordinarily quick time by the IDF’s emergency aid team, and included:

  • Operating rooms
  • An intensive care ward
  • A maternity ward
  • A pediatrics ward
  • Incubator units
  • A pharmacy
  • X-ray equipment
  • 10 tons of medical equipment
  • 90 beds, 66 intensive care beds and two delivery beds

(information from IDF communique of 16 January 2010)
 
Said Carmi Bar-Tal, the deputy head of the IDF emergency mission: “We have the capacity to help… we know how to bring medicine to the field….” (Jerusalem Post, 18 January 2010).

Over 250 Israeli personnel staffed the hospital:  The IDF field hospital was staffed by 250 personnel, including 40 doctors and specialists, 20 nurses and several paramedics (source: IDF communique, 17 January 2010). According to the field hospital commander Isaac Kreiss, he received requests back home from some 300 more Israelis to join the mission, but they had to be turned down, mainly for lack of space (report in Jerusalem Post, 22 January 2010). 

Saving lives at the IDF field hospital:  According to Israeli figures, in the first week after the earthquake, 383 Haitians had been treated in the IDF hospital including dozens of children; 140 life-saving operations had been performed; 60 people were hospitalised, and 7 babies had been born in the hospital (source: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs communique, 22 January 2010). 

Praise from medics from other countries for Israel’s ‘amazing’ hospital:  The IDF field hospital won praise from medics from other countries.  Typical was the following comment from Dr Jennifer Furin of the Harvard Medical School in the USA, which was broadcast as part of a news item on CNN:  

“I’ve been here since Thursday.  No-one except the Israeli hospital has taken any of our patients.  It’s like another world compared to the other hospitals.  They have imaging, they have scanning machines, operating theatres, ventilators, monitoring.  It’s just amazing…..” 

(Furin’s quote was reported in The Jerusalem Post, 20 January 2010)

The Japanese ambassador to Haiti visited the IDF hospital too, accompanied by Japanese politicians: “the hospital is operating in a very systematic way, it’s very impressive…..” (source:  Jerusalem Post, 22 January 2010).  Japan has suffered terrible earthquakes – for example Kobe in 1985.  Diplomats, politicians and journalists from many countries praised the Israeli effort.
  
Israeli search and rescue team finds survivors in the rubble:  Many survivors were miraculously found alive in the rubble days after the earthquake by search and rescue teams from several countries, including the USA, France and Israel.  The Israeli search and rescue team included 30 people, and included logistics, IT and communications specialists, and canine units (from IDF communique, 15 January).  On 20 January, a female student was rescued by the Israeli team from a collapsed university building, where she had been trapped in an air pocket for six days (reported on 20 January by Israel21c).   

A separate Israeli team from IsraAid provides further support:  In addition to the above, a team of volunteers from the Israeli humanitarian organisation IsraAid flew out, comprising doctors, nurses and logistics experts.   The IsraAid team provides medical support, and assistance in distributing humanitarian supplies in Port au Prince (source: IsraAid website, 15 January 2010).   

Contributions of aid and grassroots support: Within a week, the Israeli government had contributed over £1.4m worth of aid to Haiti (Israel 21c report, 20 January).  Several Israeli grassroots organisations such as Latet (‘to give’) quickly raised substantial sums of money from the Israeli public, and sent more volunteers to contribute to the IsraAid effort. 

Israel sends delegations of experienced trauma counsellors:  A team of Israeli trauma experts flew out to Haiti on 22 January, to begin the work of training local teachers and medics to become trauma counsellors.  The trauma team was led by Dr Moshe Farhi from Kiryat Shmona in Northern Israel, and comprised mental health therapists, doctors, community workers and trauma support staff. Farhi announced that a total of 12 Israeli specialist teams expected to be at work in trauma support for at least six months.  Farhi had led a similar mission to Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami (report: Israel21c, 11 February 2010).  Farhi commented: “the resilience of the Haitian population is much stronger than we expected…. Within a week they had started sending their children to school…..”
   
Building a school in Port au Prince:  On 18 February Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced plans to build a 1000-student ‘village style’ school in the heart of Port au Prince, mainly for Haitian orphans.  It will provide an elementary school, playground, community centre, medical clinic and rehabilitation centre.  The cost was announced as around £1.1m, and it was due to be operational in about 1 month.  The school would similar to a school built by Israel for orphans from the war in Kosovo in the Balkans (Jerusalem Post, 19 February).  

Accusation: ‘Israel exploited its relief effort in Haiti for PR purposes….’

Some of Israel’s detractors accuse the country of exploiting its relief effort in Haiti for public relations purposes.  Here are some responses to this:-
  

  • Most of Israel’s disaster relief efforts in other countries (eg in Myanmar or Bangladesh, or after the 2004 tsunami) have gone completely unnoticed by the international media
  • The hundreds of Israelis who staffed the IDF field hospital and otherwise helped with humanitarian relief turned their lives upside down at a moment’s notice, and having experienced the terrible human aftermath of the earthquake first hand, returned to Israel shattered and emotionally exhausted. They are selfless and idealistic people, not PR seekers
  • Israel’s field hospital attracted attention because of the quality and speed of what it delivered, not because the Israelis were “just in it for the PR”
  • Israel’s follow-up efforts in Haiti – eg the trauma support training, and the construction of the school for orphans - have gone unreported, so Israel can hardly be accused of providing that support for PR purposes   
  • Yes, some Israelis flew the Israeli flag by the IDF hospital.  But when the country is so persistently singled out by the world’s media and diplomatic elite for its callousness and cruelty,  is it surprising that some Israelis want to make known the underlying humanity of the country?
‘If the Israelis can be good to the people of Haiti, why are they blind to the suffering of the Palestinians next door….?’

Some people have accused Israel of displaying a double-standard, by showing compassion to the people of Haiti while allegedly being blind to the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.  Here are some responses:

  • The two situations cannot be compared. The Hamas leaders of Gaza are in a state of permanent war with Israel – it can hardly be surprising that the Israeli government and public reacts differently to Gaza than to Haiti
  • Even in the midst of conflict, Israel has tried to minimise the humanitarian suffering of the people of Gaza.  For example, Israel has provided extensive access to Israeli medical facilities (see Beyond Images Briefing 215), and Gazan children have been brought to Israel for free heart surgery (see www.saveachildsheart.org). Israel facilitates the entry into Gaza of large consignments of food, medical equipment and other essentials, and is working with the international community to avoid humanitarian suffering for Gazans  (see www.theisraelproject.org)
  • Hatred of Israel, and incitement against the country within Palestinian society and the wider Arab world, prevent people from seeing the country accurately, and building bridges. How many Arabs think: “if Israel can do this, they can’t be all bad….”.  The core problem is not that Israelis blind themselves to the suffering of the Palestinians, but that  Arab states and citizens blind themselves to the qualities of Israel
  • Instead of unjustly criticising Israel, Israel’s accusers should protest the measly contributions from Arab Gulf states to Haitian relief efforts
Some other resources

Beyond Images Briefing 125: Indian Ocean ‘tsumani’ and Israeli relief efforts

Websites:  www.israaid.co.il / http://mashav.mfa.gov.il / www.israel21c.org