Today the city of Beirut is in ruins, and at the time of this writing, people still lie under rubble. Likely hundreds are dead, and if only we could help. The State of Israel has the best search and rescue and organized deployable field trauma units in the region, and perhaps the entire world. Beirut is so close to us, we could round trip our crews from our own home airfields, enabling us to bring our full resources to bear. If only we had that ability in our extraordinary efforts in Nepal of 2015 or Haiti 2010. I’m so proud of the efforts we made to help the thousands of Syrians who fled to our borders in need of medical aid from their violent struggle. We treated wounded fighters, along with women and children from all sides in our own hospitals. It was the right thing to do.
But I likely don’t need to tell you, there is no way we’ll be able to help them right now. In Lebanon you can be arrested and made to answer for even having an Israeli friend on Facebook. Their authorities demonize us, like in so many other parts of the region. They could never allow a positive image of us to emerge. Yet seeing how widely our offer to help was covered in international media today, I’d like to believe the people of Lebanon at least got the message. And that message is that we actually and ultimately desire to live in peace alongside our regional neighbors. That at the end of the day, despite our differences, we see them as fellow human beings.
At a moment when the people of Lebanon are in trouble, we showed we are bigger than the conflict that currently exists between us. And not everyone has to like it, or even agree with it. When the Tel Aviv municipality decided to drape city hall in the colors of the Lebanese flag tonight in solidarity, it drew a sharp rebuke from some of those on the Right. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which supported the city of Tel Aviv’s flag initiative, tweeted: “Humanity first. From the heart of Tel Aviv, peace to Beirut.” Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke on the floor of the parliament yesterday saying “We differentiate between the regimes and the people they rule.” When our humanity was tested in this moment, and in so many others before, I’m proud to see that we rose above the situation, and extended our hand. If only they would take it.
At the same time I can’t help but seriously face the realities that surround us in this moment. For two weeks we’ve been awaiting an attack from Southern Lebanon, or worse, on a soft foreign Israeli target, at the hands of the menacing Hezbollah, now dominating Lebanon. As we offer our aid, in all forms, I have asked myself if they would do the same. Sadly I feel I’ve already been shown the answer.
In 2006, we embarked on an uncertain war against the enemy in southern Lebanon that attacked across our border, killing and kidnapping our reservists with families at home. It took us until 2008 to finally negotiate to receive whatever remained of two of them from Lebanon. Although we had good reason to believe they did not survive, we did not in fact actually know their true condition. I’ll never forget watching those grim black boxes emerge from the truck at the border, putting such a final gut wrenching end to the saga. And as we mourned our loss in that moment, still ringing so loudly among the others from 2006, I will certainly never forget the price we paid to receive those bodies.
Along with a handful of other Hezbollah captives, we opened up our prison to release the child murderer and Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar. His actions in an attack in Nahariya in 1979 are so vile I don’t want to recount them here. Never showing remorse, he sat for nearly 30 years in Israeli prison, until the day we sent him back in order to receive our dead soldiers. It was horrifying enough to see this monster walk free, but the true horror and outrage came when he received a hero’s state welcome ceremony, immediately upon landing in Beirut. He was warmly hugged and received by President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, Speaker of the Parliament of Lebanon Nabih Berri, and other members of parliament as well as Muslim and Christian spiritual leaders. They constructed a large stage just for the televised celebration and official event, all leading into his victory tour of the country. I couldn’t understand, in any part of me, how a nation could embrace such a person as their hero.
It’s the kind of scene we in Israel sadly became so accustomed to seeing across the Palestinian territories during the Second Intifada. And to me it has been a message loudly and clearly received from the majority of the Middle East. In fact it’s been loud and clear since the Jews began to reclaim power and sovereignty here some 100 years ago after nearly 2 millennia as a subjugated minority. And in a way, because and in spite of all that, I’m all the more proud that today we could show we are above it all. We are truly in pain to see them suffering. We are willing and ready to help, and actually save the people of Beirut in this dire moment. Israel wants to live in peace alongside its neighbors. Today was really one of those days where we frustratingly say “If only…”