Public Relations instead of saving lives
Sending portable toilets to
Haiti would have been a better option, but this does not provide good
photo opportunities. Israeli missions to disaster areas in the past
have shown that such activity was in vain.
I received my final exemption
from the army after I published an article which said that the State of
Israel acts like the proverbial Boy Scout, who insists on doing a good
deed daily and helping an old lady cross the road even against her
will. How ungrateful of me to publish such a column when I had
participated in almost all the rescue missions to overseas disaster
areas! Suddenly I am no longer suitable to take part in such heroic
endeavours. But in light of the experience I gained in such missions…we
have wasted our effort.
Generally speaking, we start
preparing for such a mission within hours of the announcement of a
natural disaster. Most often the Israeli mission team is the first one
to land in the area. Like those who climb Mount Everest, it plants its
flag on the highest peak available, announcing to all and sundry that
the site has been conquered. And in order to ensure that the public is
aware of this sporting achievement, the mission is accompanied by media
representatives, photographers, an IDF spokesman’s office squad and
I understood the purpose
perfectly when the head of one of the delegations to a disaster zone
was asked whether oxygen tanks and a number of doctors could be removed
to make room for another TV network’s representatives with their
equipment. (With unusual courage, the delegation head refused!)
The lesson learnt from the
activities of those missions is that when there is a natural disaster,
or when thousands of people are expelled from their homes by force, as
happened in Kosovo, survivors may benefit from international assistance
only if it responds to the region’s specific needs. Also assistance
must be coordinated among the various aid agencies.
The competitive race to a
disaster zone imposes a huge strain on the local health and
administration authorities. Airports are clogged by transport planes
unloading a lot of unnecessary but bulky equipment. Doctors and rescue
organisations seek ways to utilise single carriageway roads and in fact
they are a burden. The correct way to help is to send a small advance
force to gauge the dimensions of the disaster…
Would they still call that child Israel?
Three components are crucial:
shelter, water and food — these things are crucial in order to save the
largest number of people. Water purification equipment, tents, basic
food rations are needed. But they do lack the desired dramatic effect.
If we went down that track we would miss out on seeing that child who
was born with the assistance of our physicians. Most certainly, the
excited mother wouldn’t give her child (who knows if he will ever reach
a ripe old age?) the name Israel or that of the obstetrician or nurse.
(Would he get citizenship because he was born in Israeli territory?
There would be many opposed to that.) The drama is indeed classy, but
its necessity is doubtful.
It being Israel, our current force contains a Kashrut supervisor, security personnel and more.
In the present disaster, which
is of a more massive scale than anything we have encountered to date,
the need is not so much for a field hospital but field, ie portable,
toilets. There is more of a need for digging equipment to dig graves
and sewage pipes.
A country which wants to
provide humanitarian aid without concern for its media image should
send whatever is required by the victims, and not whatever it wants
to deliver. But would the evening news show the commander of the
Israeli mission at the compound with 500 chemical toilets? Unlikely. It
is much more media savvy to show an Israeli hospital, replete with
stars of David and of course the dedicated doctors and nurses, dressed
in their snazzy uniforms with an Israeli flag on the lapel.
…It is quite likely that
financial assistance commensurate with Israel’s resources would be
preferable to the enormous expense and complicated logistics involved
in the maintenance of a medical unit in the field…
But apparently a minute of TV
coverage is much more important…and in fact Israel is using disasters
as [military] field training in rescue and medical care. After a
fortnight, the mission will reportedly return to Israel. To be truly
effective a field hospital needs to remain for two or three months, but
that’s a condition that Israel cannot meet.
…It is only in the Israeli aid compound in Haiti that large signs carrying the donor country’s name hang for all to see.
Prof. Yoel Donchin is the director of the Patient Safety Unit at the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem.
Translated by Sol Salbe, who directs the Middle East News Service for the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.