Israel's role in the Haiti earthquake crisis

January 21, 2010
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Alive: IDF soldiers pull a Haitian government worker from the rubble of the customs office after 125 hours

Alive: IDF soldiers pull a Haitian government worker from the rubble of the customs office after 125 hours

Dr Shir Dar stood, like a proud father, outside one of the tents making up the Israeli field hospital in Port-au- Prince.

While his fellow surgeons were busy with orthopedic procedures and amputations, he got the happier task of delivering the first baby born in the Israeli medical compound.

“He’s a lovely healthy baby,” Dr Dar said, as members of the medical team all came to take a look.

Despite the massive international presence, the Israelis currently have the only fully equipped, fully functioning hospital in Haiti. In its first week of operation, it has already treated thousands of victims of the Port-au-Prince earthquake, and delivered several more children, while IDF search teams have succeeded in rescuing two Haitians from under the destroyed buildings.

“There are no words to describe the pain and sorrow in the picture that confronts us, such difficult images, so hard to bear,” wrote Arele Klein, a volunteer with the Zaka International Rescue Unit Delegation, on a daily blog. “Men, women and children in various states of injury, from light to critical, many with severed or dangling limbs, all waiting in line quietly, a chilling calm, without cries or screams, just waiting their turn for treatment.”

Occasionally, some cannot wait. A young man enters the compound, his leg crushed. He tells the translator that only now was he able to find help. Orthopedists take him immediately in and within an hour he is in surgery.

But it is the children’s ward that draws most of the attention. The staff do their best to cheer up the children, some of whom arrived with no parents. Footballs and crayons were packed in advance and now provide distraction.

Brigadier General Shalom Ben Arieh, commander of the IDF delegation, said: “It is hard to describe the extent of the gratitude of the people here when they realise that people have come from so far away as Israel to help them.”

He said that the hospital is operating 24 hours a day and “our doctors have to deal with a great many medical and ethical dilemmas, especially when it comes to admitting patients, as there is only so much room and the doctors have to decide who to turn away. It is often heartbreaking.”

One of the doctors described the surprise of medical teams when they saw the sort of equipment the Israeli field hospital had brought with it. He said: “Some of them, from European countries, were speechless. Most of them had arrived only with basic equipment.”

The two El Al planes which left Ben Gurion Airport last Thursday morning contained the entire equipment of the IDF’s airborne field hospital unit and 221 personnel, including 40 doctors, 24 nurses and 20 paramedics.

The IDF delegation also included five search-and-rescue teams, sniffer dogs, communication experts and a security force of soldiers from elite units. In addition to its doctors specialising in trauma, the Medical Corps drafted gynecologists, obstetricians and other specialists expected to be needed to replace normal medical services, which have ceased. It even has an X-ray centre.

The Israeli delegation also set up an advanced communication network which enabled the doctors to enlist specialists back in Israel for diagnosis. In one case, a young girl’s eye was saved by an ophthalmologist thousands of miles away. Colonel Dr Itzik Kreis, the hospital’s commander, said: “We have the equipment here to work like we would in a hospital back home. So we have made arrangements with other hospitals here, without sufficient equipment, that they ship us the more severe cases after stabilisation.”

Over the past year, the IDF Medical Corps has been re-establishing its field surgery capabilities, after disbanding the field hospital unit nine years ago for budgetary reasons. The new unit’s first full exercise was only two months ago. In a video call to the soldiers, Israeli President Shimon Peres said they demonstrated “the IDF at its best”.

“All of us watch you day by day — our hearts crying with distress. You have shown the IDF at its best, as an army not only for the defence of Israel but for the defence of humanity.

“It does not matter where a disaster hits, you are the first organised response to help. Your efforts have once again shown the beautiful spirit of the IDF; a spirit that is humane and mobilises even to save one life.”

The reward for the Israeli effort was not hard to find — in the big smile of an eight-month-old baby brought by a stranger to the hospital and saved after not eating for four days, in the voices of Haitians cheering “we love Israel” as rescuers carried out a man who was trapped for days, and in the decision of the mother who gave birth in the field hospital to name her baby son “Israel”.

Meanwhile, international Jewry has mobilised. Following the earthquake, the American Jewish federations raised more than $2 million.

The British Jewish community donated over £180,000 to World Jewish Relief’s emergency appeal (at wjr.org.uk), which is supported by a broad range of Jewish communal organisations including the Board of Deputies, United Synagogue, Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, Movement for Reform Judaism, Liberal Judaism and UJS.

And £40,000 has already been allocated to purchase urgently required items such as shelter tarpaulins, water kits and food packages.

All the international Zionist youth movements have partnered with Latet, an Israel-based humanitarian organisation, in an emergency fundraising drive. All funds raised will go directly to emergency relief equipment and medication to be sent to Haiti.

Last updated: 3:54pm, January 21 2010