How 'Ego Wars' Among Israeli Rescue Organizations Are Endangering the Public

Rival groups rushing to an accident scene may have ulterior motives for arriving first, with infusions of cash as paramount as those of blood.

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Magen David Adom workers by the scene of the tragic accident in northern Israel.
Magen David Adom workers at the scene of an accident in northern Israel.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

After the murder of teenager Hili Sobol in Tel Aviv in February, the story of Barak Sharabi began making the rounds on social media. Sharabi is a volunteer with the ultra-Orthodox Zaka rescue and recovery organization. He uploaded a video clip to various WhatsApp groups, showing Sobol’s mother hearing the news that her daughter was dead, and wrote: “Must credit Barak Sharabi!!”

Haaretz correspondent Chaim Levinson tweeted about this, then later tweeted that Zaka chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav called him and told him that Sharabi is a volunteer with “Zaka Tel Aviv,” not “Zaka.” The national Zaka organization then tweeted, “A volunteer of the imitation organization, Zaka Tel Aviv. A real disgrace.”

Israelis know Zaka well: Ultra-Orthodox volunteers on motorcycles who collect body parts and bodies at sites of accidents and terror attacks, and wash away the blood. Founded 27 years ago, according to Meshi-Zahav it now has 300 volunteers and is recognized by the security forces as an organization that provides assistance in times of emergency.

Chaim Nogelblatt, the “commander” of Zaka Tel Aviv, sees things a little differently, however. Zaka Tel Aviv was established in 1994, after a terror attack on the No. 5 bus that October – and was the first to also take the deceased away. Nogelblatt, who also volunteers with the police, made it clear that Sharabi’s case was unusual and that he has been “suspended from duty until further notice he’s a young man who regrets what he did, and explained it was done in a moment of weakness. He saw that everybody around him was taking pictures, having their pictures taken and uploading them, and he succumbed to such a moment.”

But the tensions between national Zaka and Zaka Tel Aviv can undermine the organizations’ goals. A source familiar with both says Zaka Tel Aviv sought to block representatives of national Zaka from soliciting donations from the Tel Aviv municipality. “We didn’t try to stop them meeting, we wanted to be part of it,” explains Nogelblatt. “If there are budgets, I want to be a partner. In another case, the local government wanted to give an award to Zaka behind my back. I could have made sure that Meshi-Zahav wouldn’t get the award. But I said, let’s both receive it. So it was that Shimon Peres, then the president, gave the award to both organizations. One needs to understand that these are different organizations. We don’t represent each other. We are like two different hospitals, that’s all.”

Why don’t you consolidate with national Zaka?

Nogelblatt: “Our orientation is more police-like. The national Zaka only agreed to work with the police 15 years ago, while we have been cooperating with them since the 1990s. In general, we are an independent unit with different working methods. We are smaller, with 200 volunteers covering the greater Tel Aviv area, and we have a different style – you won’t see us giving interviews, or on TV shows. Right, there may be tensions with Zaka sometimes, but we’re not in any quarrel.”

Meshi-Zahav, meanwhile, says, there is no difference between the two organizations. “We all have the same purpose. They ride on our backs, budgetwise, but all in all we’re one family.”

Can’t see the victim for volunteers

The Sharabi scandal served to make everyone aware of Zaka Tel Aviv, but also highlighted the intrigue and tensions between the various rescue organizations that arrive at accident and terror sites. Zaka and Zaka Tel Aviv aren’t the only ones.

When it comes to first aid, the number one organization is the Magen David Adom rescue service. Another is United Hatzalah, which has been officially recognized by the Health Ministry as a rescue organization that can respond to calls. There are also smaller organizations, including Hatzalah Yehuda & Shomron (in the West Bank), and Hatzalah Gush Dan (greater Tel Aviv area). Both are associated with Magen David Adom, but operate independently.

Meshi-Zahav’s Zaka doesn’t just collect the bodies: if they get to the scene first – and that happens a lot – they provide first aid until other services arrive: their volunteers have done courses in first aid. “We invented the motorcycle thing, and take credit for all the other organizations having motorcycles,” says Meshi-Zahav.

The scene of a terror attack at the Gush Etzion junction, March 18, 2016. Rescue services have become increasingly competitive to get their pictures in the media.Credit: AFP

The problem is, sometimes so many volunteers show up at the scene that it really isn’t helpful. Take the recent Bus 402 accident on Route 1, in which six people, all ultra-Orthodox, were killed. Dozens of volunteers showed up from multiple rescue organizations – mainly Magen David Adom and Hatzalah. One picture shows a bunch of them milling about aimlessly by the bus. “Everybody came, without coordinating, and only a few had something to do,” says a source. “We already have a slang term for this – a ‘multiple handlers’ event. But it isn’t funny, because when too many arrive, it creates chaos, making it hard to control the services.”

Pictures from hell

Last December, a Palestinian rammed his car into four soldiers near the settlement of Beit Arye. The first to arrive on the scene was Mayor Avi Naim, who’s also head of the Emergency and Rescue branch for local government. Naim, who had been a combat medic in the army, says he began treating the wounded. “Then people arrived from the United Hatzalah organization of Modi’in and then people from Magen David. Things started getting messy. It wasn’t clear who was subject to who and chaos ensued volunteers from different organizations come to the same site at the same time, and start to argue over who’s the boss.”

“On the one hand, competition significantly improved the situation people from the new organizations can show up faster than Magen David and assist,” argues Yerach Tucker, a media adviser to Moshe Gafni (who is also chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee and a cofounder of United Hatzalah). But he agrees that too many volunteers creates chaos, which is the antithesis of helpful. “Just recently, a volunteer from one of the rescue organizations injured children when rushing to a scene at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Magen David has a lot of complaints about the rescue organizations, and they’re right.”

Tucker admits that in the past, the organizations would sometimes fight over the unseemly question of who gets to send pictures of major terror attacks to the media. “One might ask, ‘Why do they need this? These are righteous people who don’t need the publicity.’ But the more an organization expands, the more it wants to expand its options – give the volunteers motorcycles, buy a resuscitation machine. These things cost money. There are costs and it requires donations. This is where public opinion and the desire for publicity come into play.”

Zaka likes publicity and cares about its image. It recently ran an ad for a social media manager with experience in video editing. Nothing wrong with that, says Meshi-Zahav. “I don’t have anything to apologize for. There are things we need to produce, for our needs, and it does not dishonor the dead,” he says.

Who is a terrorist?

As the number of volunteers grew, so did the number of pictures being disseminated online. And so did the probability that dreadful ones violating the dignity of the victims, or the dead, would be uploaded.

In recent months, pictures of victims sent by rescue organizations reached social media and WhatsApp. Some claim the distribution of pictures damages Israel’s image and politics, too.

Just last week, Shimrit Meir, editor of the Tel Aviv-based Arabic news website Al-Masdar, published a photo of a terror attack that originated with Hatzalah Yehuda & Shomron.

Hatzalah Yehuda & Shomron was founded in 2002, during the second intifada, by security officers at settlements. Today it has 400 volunteers, says its head, Chanan Malka. Their operations are subordinate to Magen David Adom, but it is registered as a nonprofit and maintains its independent status.

A source at another rescue organization says Hatzalah Yehuda & Shomron is more concerned with photographing the scene than providing medical help, and adds that it publishes pictures others wouldn’t – including the wounded and terrorists’ bodies. “Their reports are also politically biased,” the source adds. “For instance, in their announcements they always immediately state that it’s a terrorist, though that decision belongs to the police or army.”

A Zaka volunteer working at the scene of a crash. Use of motorcycles means Zaka volunteers often arrive first at an accident site. Credit: Yanky Haritin

Malka rejects the criticism. “As an organization we oppose the distribution of images,” he says. “If somebody did that privately, there are ways to handle it. Our policy is not to distribute material from the site of an event. We need to document events to study them, not to distribute images if someone distributes a picture with a credit, it’s because the media demands that credit for their own legal reasons.” He acknowledges that it’s up to the security forces to define who is a terrorist, “but what are you supposed to do when an eyewitness has identified exactly what happened?”

Why don’t the various rescue organizations consolidate? “Everybody wants to be the commander, nobody wants to be No. 2,” Malka shrugs – and while multiple organizations is okay in and of itself, at actual scenes nobody’s in charge and the upshot is surplus services. “That’s why there’s a state, to set the rules,” he says.

More confusion can be created by the fact that people may belong to more than one organization. United Hatzalah has 3,000 listed volunteers, but half of them also volunteer for Magen David Adom and some also work with Zaka. Once, at an accident in Eilat, when the victim of an accident was declared dead, volunteers took off their United Hatzalah vests and donned Zaka ones to deal with the body.

Even more bizarrely, a “first on scene” volunteer for Magen David Adom talked with Channel 10 in the morning, and later the same man talked with a different show as the “first on scene” volunteer for Zaka.

United Hatzalah was founded in 2006, after the Second Lebanon War, as an experimental consolidation of 16 associations groups. While the individual associations hadn’t been, United Hatzalah is recognized by the Health Ministry and has permits to train ambulance drivers and medics. Its annual budget is now 30 million shekels ($7.8 million), most of which comes from overseas donations. Its main advantage over Magen David Adom is the speed of its arrival – mere minutes. But it doesn’t evacuate victims to hospital: Magen David Adom retains the monopoly over that (getting paid for each such trip).

The consolidation process hasn’t been seamless. Hatzalah Yehuda & Shomron and Hatzalah Gush Dan, for instance, wouldn’t join the central group. In others, like Hatzalah Jerusalem and Hatzalah Ashdod, some of their members have rejected the great consolidation; some still retain their registration as independent associations.

Theoretically, that shouldn’t matter: working for Hatzalah is tantamount to working for Magen David Adom. But in contrast to United Hatzalah, these smaller organizations have no hotline or medical setup and are generally unrecognized.

Problems arise, say Magen David Adom sources, when ethical complaints arise – for instance, in respect to photos. “I wonder why somebody volunteering for Magen David Adom and answering Magen David calls has to call himself Hatzalah – just because he wants to raise money?” a source wonders. “Hatzalah Jerusalem, Hatzalah Petah Tikva, Hatzalah Ashdod – they all operate under Magen David Adom. Sixteen organizations work hand-in-hand with Magen David Adom and I don’t understand why they need to call themselves Hatzalah instead of, simply, Magen David Adom.”

Magen David Adom has 13,000 volunteers, plus 2,000 employees; its annual budget is 450 million shekels, a third of which is donations (and some of which comes from the blood bank it runs). Some 200 of its 4,000 volunteers on duty are on motorcycles (Zaka was the first, but Magen David Adom adopted the practice in 2004).

Why not, indeed, unite Hatzalah with Magen David Adom, the one providing fast medical service by motorcycle, the other arriving later with ambulances to evacuate the victims? Well, until 2014 the two were at total war, but finally the Health Ministry forced them to share information. They still compete, though: “Ego wars are killing us,” admits Naim. “At first everything was goodwill, but now a lot is tainted by public relations and money.” They compete over who arrives first, photographs first and makes the first announcement, instead of cooperating, he adds. And the root cause is the need for donations.

At least both organizations agree that distribution of disturbing pictures from terrorism scenes is wrong. Also, “in the field, we’re all colleagues. If there’s tension between the two organizations, it’s at the level of management and the spokesmen,” says a source close to Hatzalah.

Magen David Adom denied for the record that it has any conflicts with the roughly 30 Hatzalah groups in Israel: their function is to provide first aid, while its function is that plus evacuation to hospital, irrespective of who got there first. And they all cooperate in the field, it added.

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