Disaster response team boosts Israel's image abroad

A Home Front Command unit that spent the past few years providing assistance in disaster areas around the world has become the most effective tool in the battle over Israel’s image worldwide.

al-monitor The Israel Defense Forces search-andjrescue team extracted a 52 year old Haitian government employee, trapped in the ruins of the customs office in Port-au-Prince after an earthquake, Jan. 17, 2010. Photo by WikiCommons/IDF.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

public opinion, media, israeli settlement product exports, israeli politics, israeli occupation, israeli foreign policy, images, boycott of israeli goods

Nov 13, 2013

A team from the Israeli Home Front Command’s Rescue Unit left for the Philippines less than 24 hours after the scope of the disaster there became known. Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the city of Tacloban, has been described as one of the most powerful storms that has occurred on Earth. It caused the deaths of thousands and left hundreds of thousands without a roof over their heads. Over the next few days, a large contingent from the Home Front Command will set out for the Philippines to help the survivors and to try to rescue people still buried beneath the ruins. Even stronger, better-established countries have a hard time dealing with disasters of this scope. Tragedies like this require foreign aid, and the help of international rescue units that have accumulated years of experience dealing with emergencies.

The IDF’s Home Front Command Rescue Unit was formed thirty years ago after two major attacks by Hezbollah against IDF staff units in Tyre, during the First Lebanon War [1982-1983]. Car bombs detonated with hundreds of kilograms of explosives, causing the collapse of Israel’s military government headquarters and a building used by the Border Police. Some 135 soldiers and civilians were killed, with most of the victims buried beneath the rubble. But at the time, Israeli rescue teams lacked the tools to extricate the many injured from the ruins. The first and second “Tyre disasters,” as the two attacks in Lebanon came to be known, and the attack against US forces in Beirut, which killed more than 200 Marines in October 1983, led to Israel’s decision to create a highly skilled unit that would train professionals to operate in disaster areas.

This new unit consisted of soldiers and volunteers, who are called in during emergencies. The latter included professionals whose services would be required, such as doctors, engineers, medics, crane operators, etc. Since then, the unit has acquired more than just considerable operational experience. It also has won international accolades. It went from being a unit designated to assist the victims of war and terrorism into a goodwill ambassador in those areas around the world struck by natural disasters and other calamities. Since it was founded, the unit has aided the victims of the earthquake in Turkey (1999), the earthquake in Haiti (2010), the Fukushima disaster in Japan (2011), the tsunami in Thailand (2012) and many others.

Over the years, as Israel’s status in international public opinion deteriorated and protests against it intensified, the unit’s global activities caused an entire public to feel a sense of pride. Israelis appreciated the opportunity to show the world another side of the IDF, so different from those images that came to represent the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, such as soldiers standing at checkpoints or dispersing Palestinian demonstrators. Support for the unit is more than just the consequence of its actions. It is also a direct response to the enormous frustration that Israelis feel about the country’s negative image around the world, which is only getting worse, particularly in Europe. In many cases, legitimate critics of Israel are joined by anti-Israel and anti-Zionist groups motivated by their own interests or by blind hatred. Various groups around the world have begun calling for a boycott of Israel and its products, and for economic or academic sanctions against the country.

The modus operandi of those groups is to demonstrate whenever Israelis appear around the world, whether it is in universities, theaters, or sports arenas. What they are striving for is the complete de-legitimization of Israel’s existence. Almost any time Israeli artists perform around the world, these movements’ “recruits” appear, waving signs condemning Israel. Last year, actors from Israel’s national theater, Habima, who appeared in London’s Shakespeare Festival, anticipated such an outburst and prepared in advance to respond, by handing out flowers to the audience as a counterweight to calls to boycott the country. Israeli soccer and basketball players competing in international tournaments are also used to the barrage of anti-Semitic jeers frequently hurled at them often during games. Anyone who has ever spoken with Israeli representatives, ambassadors, and consuls throughout the world has heard of the enormous frustration they have in the battle over Israel’s public image. Many feel that it is a lost cause.

Nissim Ben Shitreet, the former Israeli ambassador to Japan, told me about his own experiences during the Fukushima disaster two years ago. “The aid operation, which was well-planned on all levels at the Foreign Ministry and the embassy, made a significant contribution to improving Israel’s image and rebranding the country in Japan,” he wrote in a guest article for the Israeli website Walla.

I met Ben Shitreet in Tokyo shortly after the disaster. At the time he was practically helpless confronting the wave of disturbing anti-Israel rhetoric in the Japanese media. He told me then that the forces active in the effort to besmirch Israel’s reputation were very strong, and the Foreign Ministry and other advocates of Israel had a hard time confronting them. I’m not talking about criticism, he told me, but about lies and lack of understanding. Why is it no surprise then, that Israeli military units that participate in rescue missions around the world are a source of pride for so many Israelis? Why is it no surprise that so many regard this unit and its operations as a much-needed lifesaver to improve Israel’s image

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