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Israel Defense Forces: Skillful in Saving Lives — and if It Must, in Taking Them

A former IDF medic praises the tremendous capabilities on display in Haiti, and wishes they only ever had to be in the business of lifesaving.

by
Lenny Ben-David

Bio

January 28, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Almost all Israelis and Israel’s supporters burst their buttons with pride when they saw the reports of the Israel Defense Forces’ emergency army units in Haiti rescuing trapped victims and treating hundreds of wounded.

“Legendary,” “the Rolls Royce of emergency medical care,” and “amazing” were some of the glowing terms used by U.S. network correspondents. Their reports described the efficiency, enthusiasm, speed, planning, and compassion of the 220-member Israeli team.

Unfortunately, the afterglow will quickly die. This week marks the three-month deadline given by the UN General Assembly for Israel’s response to the Goldstone report on the Gaza war, which charged Israel (and nominally, Hamas) for serious violations of international and humanitarian law. Israel will attempt to defend itself, but it knows that little justice or sympathy will be found in the UN’s kangaroo court or in the media that will sully Israel’s reputation and tarnish the tributes Israel earned in Haiti.

How is it, then, that Israel, so skillful in saving lives, stands accused by the UN of “war crimes, crimes against humanity, willful killings, and willfully causing great suffering”? Israel’s critics acerbically ask how Israelis can fly halfway around the world to help victims but not help Palestinians in Gaza an hour away. Some sick commentators even suggested Israeli doctors were harvesting organs.

Something just doesn’t compute with the images from Haiti.

First, let’s look at the background of the IDF team in Haiti. That was my unit. As an IDF reservist, I served as a medic on the medical rescue team, and we trained hard working with the engineers who lifted slabs of cement while we practiced inserting infusions and assisting doctors performing emergency operations in the dark, dusty conditions. Over the years, the unit was dispatched to natural catastrophes in diverse places such as Turkey, India, and Mexico City, and assisted in rescue efforts after the terrorist bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998.

The unit was originally formed after the first Lebanon war when an explosion in November 1983 pancaked a seven-story building in Tyre used by Israeli forces. Seventy-five Israeli soldiers were beneath the rubble, and the IDF was unequipped to rescue them. (Within a year, Hezbollah car bombs in Beirut brought down American and French barracks, killing some 300 soldiers.)

In my unit’s case, we were training for a contingency that we prayed would never come: Scud missiles raining down on Israeli cities. During the Gulf War 19 years ago, my unit was mobilized for the month-long war and bivouacked in an ambulance center. Whenever the sirens wailed, we threw on our chemical warfare gear and ran to the ambulances. Basically, our mission was: “If it’s bleeding, tie a tourniquet; if it’s breathing, stick it with atropine (to treat nerve gas), and then ‘scoop and run’ the victims to the hospital.” Our “front” was the Jerusalem area. No missiles fell in our sector, but 40 did fall, mostly on residential areas of Tel Aviv and Haifa. I will never forget the sense of terror while climbing into my ambulance and watching a Scud pass over my head as it headed toward Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.

At home my wife responded to the sirens, scurrying the children into the shelter while putting gas masks on the older children and bundling the baby into a special sealed plastic coop. One son, who was in Jerusalem’s Old City at the time of one attack, recalls to this day the whistles and yelps of joy by Palestinians celebrating the fall of Saddam’s missiles on Israel.

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