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ISRAEL: Sending soldiers of peace to Haiti

January 17, 2010 | 10:04 pm

Last week, the Israeli army hosted the first international emergency response conference in Israel. Two hundred participants from 35 countries attended the conference to discuss new initiatives in response and preparedness for emergency situations of all kinds. The manager of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team, Dr. Kristi Koenig, was among them. 

Col. Ariel Bar, the Home Front Command's chief medical officer, had said after the conference that one area in which they hoped to learn from the experience of other countries was natural disasters and earthquakes.

Experience came fast -- though not in Israel.

When devastation struck Haiti, Israel quickly dispatched its professional military relief team including evacuation and recovery experts aided by dogs from the Oketz ("Sting") canine unit and an extensive medical delegation that quickly deployed its fully operational field hospital in the soccer field of Port-au-Prince -- complete with surgeons and all, and a technical division that set up a communications and Internet network for coordination and video-conferencing with medical colleagues back home. The international press is also using the IDF network, as most other communications are down.


The doctors' main problem is fatigue; they're working around the clock, and surgeons are rotating shifts in the operating room headed by the chief surgeon on the site, Ofer Merin. Besides emergency operations and urgent medicine, they're handling deliveries, gunshot wounds and other injuries with no remaining medical help to turn to. Once they assess the situation, another air force plane will be delivering what they need to sustain a two-week deployment. The window of time for recovering survivors is rapidly closing; the delegation says it will stop searching for survivors Monday and concentrate on the medical efforts, assistance to other delegations and examining how Israel may learn from this for the future. Meanwhile, a group of 90 doctors and nurses from Los Angeles have asked to volunteer at the Israeli field hospital, Israel radio reported.

Follow the IDF mission in Haiti on twitter here: http://twitter.com/IDFinHaiti and videos from Haiti here: http://www.youtube.com/user/idfnadesk?blend=3&ob=4

Gilles, a 58-year-old tax authority employee, was trapped under the ruins of the building where he worked. He was there for nearly four days. He had a cellphone, and a text message saying he was alive was conveyed to the Israeli home front command team, which spent seven hours extracting him. See his dramatic rescue here: http://www.youtube.com/user/idfnadesk?blend=4&ob=4#p/a/u/2/oSsCBuBVzQw

Also on the site are ZAKA, a Jewish rescue and disaster-response team, who arrived directly from attending to a heliocpter crash in Mexico that killed Moshe Saba, a member of the Jewish community there and one of Mexico's wealthiest families. The ZAKA teams of ultraorthodox Jews have much experience from the most gruesome of suicide bombings in Israel but say the situation in Haiti is sheer hell. They worked straight through the Sabbath too, some saying it was an honor to violate the holy day in order to save human lives. They did break briefly to welcome the Sabbath with wine and bread -- and also with representatives from Egypt and Qatar. Disaster breeds unexpected closeness sometimes. The delegation rescued eight students trapped under the ruins of the university for 38 hours. See their videos from Haiti here: http://www.zaka.us/video.asp (including a brief Hava Nagila break for the soul).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting with a few words about the "horrific tragedy" that took place in Haiti. "I hope the team saves lives and that Haiti recovers from this awful tragedy," he said, adding that Israel was a small country but one with a big heart and the Jewish ethic of extending help, as it has done before when disasters struck other countries. But some in the press were critical, like Sever Plocker, here.

The Ministry of Education has decided to dedicate an online lesson to schools on the disaster in Haiti, and one religious school has announced it will hold a special prayer Monday. In the meanwhile, many Israeli humanitarian, medical and aid NGOs are organizing donations for Haiti, such as Israeli Flying Aid, Magen David Adom, Lions, and Natan.  

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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