Jan 21, 2010

The Zionization of Disaster Relief



Posted: 20 Jan 2010 01:31 PM PST

Lots o' Haiti hasbara. O, where to begin?

–"Very interesting piece on ABC News the other night. Diane Sawyer and their medical correspondent did an extended and unflattering comparison between the activities of the Israeli medical team in Haiti and the lack of same by the U.S. military," writes Mike Desch. "Of course, it is great that the IDF responded to this disaster but the piece had a real feel of p.r. to it as well. Israel's Hasbara crew understands that they have a huge p.r. problem post-Gaza and so they are always on the lookout for opportunities to present Israel in a more favorable light."

–Cynical? Here's an Israeli doctor making the same analysis:

"The extreme right wing in Israel is using the Haiti operation to reframe the fallout from the Goldstone report in the eyes of the world," Dr Yoel Donchin, an Israeli anesthesiologist and a veteran of Israeli rescue operations told The Media Line. "They know the Haitians are not part of the agenda and this is just for propaganda. But if it's good for Israel they don't care."

"You can't save everyone, and anyone who has studied mass casualty situations knows that the first thing you have to do is not rush in but to send a small team to evaluate what is the best way to help in the long run," he said. "So the fact that Israel wants to race to be the first to be there means nothing in the big picture, because Israel is usually the first to arrive but also the first to leave."

"If, for example, Israel were to bring water purification systems and chemical toilets it would be much more helpful," Dr Donchin said. "But their logic is that then it wouldn't get on the news."

Richard Silverstein has a translation of Dr Donchin's op-ed on this theme in Yediot here.     

–And today I received the following email: "HOW MANY NEWS REPORTS HAVE YOU SEEN ABOUT THIS??????? Watch this news video from Haiti. It'll make you proud to be an Israeli and a Jew." Well I'm not an Israeli, but the link is to a CNN report by medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen about an Israeli field hospital in Haiti that is doing work other harum-scarum clinics are not. "I'm just amazed, I'm amazed by what is here… It's just amazing," says Cohen (and yes I wonder if she's pro-Israel).

–The other night on Hardball, Andrea Mitchell twice referred to Israel as providing important aid to Haiti, in her list of countries helping out. (I found it disturbing. I thought, She's Jewish and powerful, why is she thumping the hasbara).

The Zionization of Disaster Relief

Didn't know there was anything particularly Zionist about providing disaster relief?  You learn something new every day.  This is a story of exploiting the suffering of poor, defenseless Haitians on behalf of Israeli triumphalism.*%2F*%2F*&ssbinary=true

A baby named Israel...who, if he reaches adulthood, would never be welcome in Israel (IDF)

Sol Salbe translated an eye-opening column from Yediot by an Israeli doctor who was an integral member of all Israeli international disaster response teams until recently.  Then he made the mistake of writing a mildly critical statement about Israeli disaster relief efforts.  As a result, he was relieved of his obligation for further IDF service and further participation in the disaster relief program.  The op ed is so revealing (and not yet available online in English) I'm going to quote large sections.  An explanatory note–at Israel's Haiti field hospital, they delivered what the Israeli PR flacks called "the first baby since the earthquake."  The medical staff urged the woman to name her baby "Israel" and she was only to eager to oblige.  Another Israeli PR coup!

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.

Yoel Donchin

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 others.

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.

If after reading this you're feeling either slightly soiled or angry, I urge you to perform a truly constructive, selfless act in reply to Israel's self-promotional puffery. Make a gift to American Jewish World Service or Doctors Without Borders, who are each doing acts of mercy without thought of benefit to themselves or any narrow political movement.  In fact, DWB's flights of precious, desperately needed medical supplies have been repeatedly turned away by American forces controlling incoming air traffic, in favor of military equipment deemed needed for the occupation which seems to be taking shape there.

Somehow Israeli field hospitals and all their support equipment manage to get through this bottleneck.  Could it be?  Nah, I didn't think so.


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