The Israel Defense Forces team dispatched to Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake two weeks ago returned home on Thursday morning, receiving a hero's welcome from top Israeli officials at the Ben Gurion International Airport.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi were on hand at the airport to laud the 200-member team as it landed.
"You have raised human spirits and elevated the name of the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces," Netanyahu told the returning team. "As many plot against us, distort and muddy our names, you have shown the real IDF."
"The Chief of Staff has told me that the other militaries were astounded by how quickly we arrived at the scene and began to work," added the prime minister. "Those who have seen the IDF over the years, operating under seemingly impossible situations and missions, are not surprised."
"Many have tried recently to tarnish our image," Ashkenazi said in his welcome. "With you deeds, you have proven that the opposite is true."
"Facing this massive catastrophe was an exceptional group of people from the Home Front Command and the IDF Medical Corps," Ashkenazi said. "This group was a source of pride for every Jew."
The Chief of Staff told the team that during his recent trip to Europe, numerous heads of foreign armies praised the work of the IDF crew, adding: "I was proud to be the man representing them."
In his welcoming address, Barak added his own accolades and praised the team for its efforts. "We all watched with excitement as the eyes of the world were on you. It warmed the heart to see you fulfill your professional mission."
"In a world where the IDF is criticized, you showed the true spirit of the IDF and the true spirit of Israel," Barak added.
The Home Front Command decided this week to bring the team back earlier than planned, as senior officers on hand in Haiti felt they had fulfilled their role in helping the earthquake victims.
One of the victims of the quake was a six-year-old boy named Wadli, who joined the Israeli team in its return. Wadli was born in Haiti with a life-threatening heart defect. In the coming weeks, he will undergo surgery at the Wolfson Hospital.
"I'm sure that the main memories you take with you will be of Waldi, the 16 babies that you delivered and the thousands of injured and sick people that you cared for," Barak told the team.
Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the head of the Home Front Command, returned to Israel last Friday after spending a few days with the Israelis in Haiti, commanded by Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Ben-Aryeh. The command and the IDF Medical Corps are now preparing for the next stages of their mission: closing up shop and leaving behind a large part of the equipment brought there as a final goodwill gesture to the people of Haiti.
The winding up of the mission involved assisting the members of the team in returning to normal life back home after the complex experiences they they had, as well as drawing the necessary professional conclusions from the Haiti operation.
On the professional level, the IDF learned much about running a field hospital under such difficult conditions and operating rescue teams; and about dealing with a mass disaster that thankfully Israel has never experienced. The up close experience of dealing with an earthquake and its aftermath - a number of aftershocks occurred while the Israel mission was there - increased awareness of the enormous danger of such a natural event, but the upper echelons of the Home Front Command believe the situation in Israel is very different. While the earthquake in Haiti reached a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale, it seems the incredible destruction resulted more from the poor-quality construction there. Two similar strength earthquakes in California in recent decades resulted in only a few dozen killed in each quake.
Members of the rescue team who toured the area were surprised to discover there are almost no buildings built with reinforced concrete in Haiti. "You wander through the ruins and see no iron bars. Everything is made out of simple concrete, which turns into a brittle material in an earthquake of this magnitude. Everything collapses," said one member of the Israeli mission.
In Israel, by way of comparison, a far stricter building code was adopted in the mid-1970s, making buildings far less vulnerable to earthquakes.
The main conclusion of the Haiti mission from an Israeli perspective, said one senior officer, concerned the "awareness of the citizens and local authorities of the possibility of an earthquake. It is possible that more exercises are needed, but if you prepare properly for a missile attack on the home front, then you have 95% of the tools [needed] at your disposal for dealing with an earthquake," said the officer.
An analysis of the decision making process on sending the team once again shows that time is the critical factor. Israel moved quickly, in terms of making its decision and making the necessary preparations.
This provided effective help at a very early stage. In the case of Haiti, the rescue operations among the ruins - even though they drew huge media coverage - were downplayed. "It is very exciting to pull out survivors, but it's a drop in the bucket. We rescued or aided in the rescue of four people, while all the rescue teams from all the countries saved 132 people altogether. It seems almost 200,000 people died in the earthquake," said the senior officer.
Israel's main accomplishment was in the quick deployment of the field hospital in Haiti. "For five critical days, it was the best hospital in Port-au-Prince," said the officer. "We provided timely medical care to about 1,000 people, we conducted 300 operations and delivered 16 babies. In the past few days the Americans arrived and then you can put things in proportion and become more modest in the face of their airlift and the scope of their aid. You need to understand that those who will continue to treat the main suffering there are the Americans," he added.
For Israel, this is further proof of the importance of field hospitals; the IDF closed the last one five years ago and only reopened them as part of the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War.
The IDF has praised the cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and El Al during the mission to Haiti. The good public relations is seen as being of only secondary importance: "Our people went to Haiti to save lives, to provide the best medical care they can and to represent Israel. That is the proper order of priorities. They did not think constantly about the blue and white flag flying overhead," said the senior officer.
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