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Cast your bread upon the waters

Overseeing Israel's renowned disaster relief activities, from healing wounded Syrians to rescuing earthquake victims

In everything that we do, I would like to believe that there is an ethical as well as a practical dimension, and that the two need to be integrated. The ethical dimension is, in my eyes, the principal guideline, and everything we do at the practical level – which should be followed through to the greatest extent possible – must be in keeping with our ethical values.

From the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, to the flooding in the Philippines this year, for 30 years the State of Israel has been sending relief delegations abroad. What is amazing regarding the Israeli phenomenon is that almost everywhere we go, we are the first to arrive, and in most cases, our contribution is the greatest in the period closest to when the disaster occurs. We cannot bring the rebuilding force of the United States, but we excel at arriving quickly and offering the necessary help in an efficient manner.

This applies to the wounded Syrians as well. We look over the border and see indescribable human suffering and ask ourselves: What might help? We ask whether we should sit by idly or whether it is possible to do something.

It is easy to ask these questions when you work in an organization like the army. We are a solid organization, one that is prepared for colossal emergencies, such as natural disasters, and for responding to events that require mobilization beyond the routine. Only afterwards do we ask: What lesson is there to be learned from this, or, What’s in it for the State of Israel?

Already three decades ago we recognized that we had accumulated sufficient knowledge and capabilities to contribute to dealing with disasters. It’s not a matter of genius – it’s our reality. We understood that the Israeli temperament, with all its advantages and disadvantages, is well suited to functioning in disaster areas: we reach a site that is in complete chaos, and we know how to manage pretty well. We are able to handle authority, we know how to improvise, and we are good problem-solvers. I’m not saying that this is a timeless trait that we inherited from our forefathers, or one that has been part of the Jewish people for generations, but we Israelis get organized quickly and respond more accurately than others everywhere we go.

"We cannot bring the rebuilding force of the US, but we excel at arriving quickly and offering the necessary help in an efficient manner" IDF clinic in Kathmandu, Nepal. April, 2015 | Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Office
“We cannot bring the rebuilding force of the US, but we excel at arriving
quickly and offering the necessary help in an efficient manner”
IDF clinic in Kathmandu, Nepal. April, 2015 | Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Office

In Haiti there was an earthquake that caused extensive damage. The earthquake itself was not particularly serious, but since the infrastructure there is so unstable (for years they built with concrete without using steel supports) that the earthquake turned the capital to dust. We said: We’ll come to their aid.

We understood that we had to dispatch a mixed convoy: an evacuation and rescue team, and medical staff – not just an infirmary – since everything had collapsed, which meant that we also had to arrive with a hospital. All we had was people’s experience; we didn’t even have a plane to get there. It takes three days for our Air Force Hercules planes to arrive.

We called El Al, and they said, “We don’t have any planes for you.” So I called Eliezer Shkedi, then CEO of El Al, who had been the Air Force Commander-in-Chief. He immediately replied, “What do you need, and when?”

We organized staff very quickly, and immunized everyone. We swarmed the baggage unit of Ben Gurion Airport, and I went from one shipping pallet to another to sift through what was going onto the plane and what wasn’t, because a Boeing 777 can only hold 14 tons of equipment in addition to the passengers. We organized a jumbo cargo plane that had come from India and would take off after the Boeing; all this happened within a few hours.

When the Boeing was ready, the captain told me, “We don’t have approval for landing. I can’t take off without approval for landing.” I told him, “Go.” We agreed that he’d fly to Port-au-Prince and that he had enough fuel so that if something went wrong, he could land nearby, in a field, in the Dominican Republic, or in Florida…we’d work it out.

Such things are unheard of. Only to an Israeli Air Force pilot who has become an El Al captain can you say, “Buddy, this is an emergency. Take off, now!”

Meanwhile, from my years of service on the Home Front Command, I have ties with the United States National Guard; its chief is Craig McKinley, a giant Irish fellow, and a lovely man. I phoned him and said, “General, give me a sliver that I can land on.” The entire terminal at Port-au-Prince had collapsed, and only one lane remained on the runway. Only the US National Guard can get access to the single surviving runway and erect an air control tower next to it.

I called him at home. He answered, “Hold on, please.” A half-hour later, he phoned to confirm: “You’ve got it.” After the plane had been in the air for an hour, I told the captain, “Authorization for landing has been received.”

We had no understanding of what was going on there, no contact person; ultimately, we found an Israeli, of course. We landed and mobilized quickly. Within 12 hours we’d taken in our first patient. It was the only hospital operating on the entire island for the first 14 days following the disaster.

Our staff numbered 240, two-thirds of them medical staff and the rest evacuation and rescue personnel. It included nurses who had left their children behind at home, doctors, hospital department heads. Their readiness to help – to just drop everything and come work under difficult conditions was amazing, e.g., living in tents, treating patients in intense heat and humidity, and with earthquake aftershocks all the time. One night, I felt as if the tent was sailing over the ground. It’s an inconceivable sensation. We did take with us an excellent chef from the Home Front Command; he gathered food from here and there, and together with the food he brought from Israel, he assembled meals. There is no doubt that satisfying meals preserve morale and provide the strength to continue despite the helplessness and the shocking sights.

Now I ask: All this in order to glorify Israel’s reputation? No one convinced the staff members to come – no one preached to them about going on a mission for the sake of Israel.

Two weeks later, we passed the torch to the U.S. Army. They brought a hospital-ship with 1,000 beds, like a floating Tel Hashomer hospital. But it took them two weeks. We were there in 48 hours. The combination of Israel and America is a good one. Haste and improvisation go very well in combination with the immense American capabilities.

Japan, unlike Haiti, is a nation unrivaled in its preparedness for natural disasters, but the 2011 tsunami was a blow from which it was hard to recover: 32,000 people killed within a few moments, and, in addition, the collapse of the nuclear reactor in Fukushima. The magnitude of destruction was difficult to grasp until you witnessed it. Villages and towns looked like someone had taken a knife and shaved the ground clean. We found ships and fishing boats five miles inland and on mountaintops.

But the Japanese are descendants of a proud nation and they were not prepared to let in a single rescue mission. They received some help from the Australian and American navies in their search for survivors at sea and logistical assistance offered from the water, but they did not let any foreign aid onto Japanese soil. They did, however, let in our delegation. It turns out that the head of the district where the disaster occurred had volunteered in Israel in 1968. A year or two before the tsunami, there had been a severe tsunami in the Miyagi Prefecture. The Israeli ambassador went there, met with the district head, and asked what kind of help was needed; he asked for mobile water-purifying machines. The ambassador arranged for the dispatch of three such machines manufactured in Israel.

After the more recent disaster, the ambassador again phoned the district head and asked if we could bring an envoy from Israel. He was interested, but it didn’t go smoothly and took three weeks of appealing to the Minister of the Interior; three weeks after the approval went through, we finally opened an infirmary in a public facility in the town of Minamisanriku. At first, the patients refused to accept medical treatment that did not follow Japanese protocol, and we therefore arranged for a Japanese medical professional to be present in the room. But afterwards, the trust grew, and there was no longer a need to adhere to this procedure.

On a visit to Tokyo, I went to the Japanese government’s Institute for Disaster Area Response Training. There they practice how to find shelter during a typhoon, or what to do during an earthquake. After the tour, the director asked me to speak to the staff. I said that indeed we see that nature is unpredictable, that it is difficult to deal with disaster, and that we will do everything we can to help. The Japanese, who are known to be very reserved, stood opposite me, crying. When you touch people on a personal level, cultural differences fall away. I believe that they were moved by our identification with them.

Regarding the bloody situation on the Syrian border, I can say, yes, the television images were good and Israel received positive publicity. But when you look at the humanitarian effort of the people who are actually administering the help, you know that it’s not for the public relations. Providing help makes us feel human. We’ve had our own disasters throughout history, and we were not always offered help. It is our responsibility, therefore, to be a “light unto the nations.” We’re talking about realizing a human obligation.

Wounded Syrians are transported by Israeli soldiers after crossing from Syria into the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near the Syrian village of Jubata al-Khashab, on September 23, 2014. Israel downed a Syrian warplane over the Golan Heights in the first such incident in three decades and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon warned that Israel would respond "forcefully" if its security is threatened. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ
Wounded Syrians are transported by Israeli soldiers after crossing from Syria into the Golan Heights, near the Syrian village of Jubata al-Khashab, September 23, 2014 | Photo: AFP

Our offering help to those wounded in the civil war that is taking place across the border on the territory of a bitter enemy came about by chance. It’s sometimes hard to believe to what extent things depend on the hand of chance. The commander of the Golani Reconnaissance Unit, Kobi Heller, was patrolling the border and saw rebel soldiers on the other side. They had conquered villages nearby, and were moving eastward, towards the fighting, and had gathered their wounded near the fence because the area was secure. I received this information as head of the Northern Command, and I said, “We have to help them.”

We decided to open a field hospital for them in the northern Golan Heights, and determined that when more help was needed than what we could provide on-site, we would refer patients to hospitals in Israel. Ultimately, it went like clockwork. They bring the most severely wounded, and we evacuate them to our hospitals. We open the field hospital only under extraordinary circumstances.

Our message to our soldiers is that this is proper humanitarian behavior. The soldiers, the personnel of the battalion’s aid station, are those who administer the initial care. It’s not simple; the sights are difficult and therefore it speaks for itself.

We say, “We save lives. We are not indifferent to suffering.” Yes, they come from an enemy country, and we do not give them a pre-test to find out what they think about Israel, even while the hospitalizations cost us millions.

And if you ask, “What’s the gain?” we know that it doesn’t change Israel’s image in the world. Headlines change and newspapers are thrown away. But at the national level we are creating ties with the enemy that are of a different nature. We are saying to them: you can live alongside us without fighting.

Would I say that it makes a difference? Maybe not. But I believe in “Cast your bread upon the waters.” If, one day, there will be a government there, and on both sides of the border there will be people who will say to themselves, “We know from the past that we can gain from these mutual ties,” that will be our reward.

We must take practical steps and get involved, in the hope that the day will come when we have a different relationship with the massive Arab world surrounding us. We must not abandon that vision. Life without hope is barren. Life that has spirit beyond material gain is the only way to live, in my eyes. Otherwise, life is merely technical. We, the Jewish people, must seek out the added value in life. It is this sense of purpose that arose, grew stronger and strengthened the Jewish people throughout history, and it was the Zionist vision that insisted on revival through building. The Zionist perspective chose not to wallow in tragedy and in playing the victim. The highest expression of this value is the ability to help. We’ve been through it, we understand it, and we know how to help.

That’s the thread that connects Haiti to Damascus.


This article is one of 17 important perspectives on the current state of the Israel-Diaspora relationship published in a special issue of Eretz Acheret magazine, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and available free of charge to Times of Israel readers. Access the full digital edition at:
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About the Author
Major General Yair Golan is Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces
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