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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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Every Israeli over the age of 20 remembers the terror of the missile attacks. The trauma may be old, but it’s deep. The fear, abhorrence, defiance, anger, and shock resurfaced when Hezbollah unleashed its month-long barrage of missiles against northern Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war, and when Hamas fired 8,000 Qassam/Katyusha missiles which finally led to Israel’s 2008 Gaza campaign. Those Lebanese and Gazans who unleashed or gave cover to the savage and indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians and then found themselves on the receiving end of Israeli fire will find little relief or sympathy within Israel today.

I recall 20 years ago meeting dozens of Palestinian doctors and nurses from Gaza and the West Bank who were attending an Israeli ulpan for the intensive study of Hebrew. They sought the language to facilitate their on-the-job training in the Israeli hospitals, which accepted them with open arms … until the Palestinians unleashed their intifadas against Israeli civilians.

By nature, Israelis will go the end of the earth — literally — to save lives, and it doesn’t take an earthquake to send Israeli medical teams around the world. Save a Child’s Heart is an Israeli-based group of pediatric heart surgeons who have saved more than 2,000 children with congenital heart defects. The children come from 36 countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Sudan, and the Palestinian Authority. The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid (IsraAID) sent additional medical units to Haiti, besides the vaunted IDF field hospital. The group swung into action after the tsunami in 2004, providing on-the-ground assistance and health care to Sri Lanka. Israeli medical teams teach local African surgeons in Swaziland to perform circumcisions on men to reduce their risk of contracting AIDS, and Israeli eye doctors restore sight to patients in places like Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and Palau.

Frankly, saving lives is a mitzva (commandment) Israelis do as part of their national and religious ethos. But when threatened, such as in the latest rounds of fighting with Iran’s proxies in Gaza and Lebanon, Israelis can respond sternly. Soldiers and their commanders on the way to the front passed through towns and cities which were under fire. Israeli families were fleeing or in shelters. Because of Israel’s collective traumas and the indiscriminate attacks on Israel’s weakest, the IDF will do just what its name suggests — it defends with force, force that is incredibly accurate and lethal. The targets may be terrorist headquarters in a refugee camp, a camouflaged nuclear facility in Syria, or a master terrorist driving in his car.

Yet even in war, those Israeli soldiers uphold a code of saving lives. They abort missions if enemy civilians may be harmed, they hesitate and weigh their actions when enemy combatants are ensconced in civilian schools and hospitals, and they investigate and judge when tragic mistakes are made. This is an army that drops leaflets and calls Gaza residents on their phones, warning them of an imminent attack on Hamas terrorists hiding in their midst. During the Gaza war, the IDF set up its medical unit at the edge of the battlefront to treat Gazan residents; Hamas forbade any resident to make use of the hospital services.

The search and rescue unit was created to respond to attacks upon Israel’s homefront. They train for World Trade Center-type attacks on Israeli cities, or for a major earthquake, or an Iranian nuclear device that could deliver devastation on the scale of Haiti’s earthquake to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

War may be the cruelest of man’s creations, but the IDF has harnessed its medical rescue unit for peace. If only it could be mobilized permanently for that purpose.

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The writer served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he is a consultant on public affairs and blogs at www.lennybendavid.com.
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