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Beyond the battlefield: the humanitarian operations of the Israel Defense Forces.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has frequently found itself on the battlefield over the past six decades, perhaps more often than the armed forces of any other country in the world. It has, after all, fought no less than six full-scale wars--the 1947-1949 War of Independence, the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1969-1970 War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 Lebanon War--against Arab armies. Furthermore, it has engaged regularly in low-intensity conflicts with both Arab armies and Arab terrorist groups beyond, along, and within Israel's borders.

The IDF's combat history, in short, is quite long. It is also very well known. Much less well known, on the other hand, is the IDF's non-combat history apart from the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the home front, it played a central role in such areas as immigrant absorption, basic education, and agricultural development during the Jewish state's first decades. (1) In more recent times, the steady expansion of civil society within Israel has led to a significant diminishment in the IDF's participation in such activities. Increasingly, therefore, the IDF's humanitarian impulses have been focused abroad, on helping states and peoples devastated by natural or manmade catastrophes.

The Jewish state, of course, has long been involved in humanitarian projects around the world. (2) Indeed, in 1958, Israel set up MASHAV, the Center for International Cooperation, which is under the aegis of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This center has coordinated Israeli efforts to combat poverty, hunger, and disease in more than 140 states around the world over the past five decades, in part by training over 200,000 professionals from these countries. (3) Throughout the 1960s, MASHAV dispatched Israeli personnel and material assistance to states in need of long-term help to develop their agricultural, health care, and educational infrastructures--a practice that has continued unabated since those days. In the 1970s, it began to provide shelter in Israel to persons in serious distress. The Jewish state initially welcomed a few hundred Vietnamese boat people. Later, persons displaced from Bosnia and Kosovo as a result of the civil wars that ravaged those areas were granted refuge in Israel. During the 1980s, MASHAV started to extend emergency humanitarian assistance to states and peoples devastated by natural or manmade calamities.

The IDF's contribution to this overall effort is to be found mainly in the third sphere of MASHAV activity. Though the IDF had been involved in relief work before the mid-1980s--for example, a military medical team spent six weeks treating Cambodian refugees near the Thai border in 1979--the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 represents its first large-scale initiative in this role. In addition to transporting medical personnel, medicines, tents, and other vital necessities to Mexico, the IDF sent along members of its SAR (search and rescue) unit to locate injured persons amid the rubble of smashed buildings; it apparently arrived too late, however, to find any survivors. In 1986, a military medical team deployed to Cameroon treated thousands of persons suffering from respiratory ailments and chemical burns caused by a volcanic eruption. In 1988, the IDF established a field hospital that provided care to large numbers of earthquake victims in Soviet Armenia. It also sent its SAR unit to the scene. The following year saw the IDF back in the Soviet Union, this time ministering to survivors of a train wreck in the Ural Mountains.

This impressive record of institutional benevolence would grow much more extensive during the 1990s. In 1991 and 1992, respectively, the IDF assisted in relief efforts to assist victims of the Georgian earthquake and Yugoslavian civil war. A much more consequential humanitarian operation took place in the midst of the extremely bloody 1994 civil war in Rwanda. The IDF set up a 120-bed field hospital in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire), where considerable numbers of Rwandan refugees had sought shelter from the massacres then sweeping their country. Over the course of more than a month, this hospital treated thousands of patients, including many who needed extensive surgical procedures.

In light of the number of humanitarian missions undertaken over the previous decade, MASHAV and the IDF inaugurated a permanent aid unit in 1995 to streamline further emergency operations in stricken areas. This new regime received its first big test in 1998, when Al-Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The IDF immediately dispatched both its SAR unit and a medical team to Kenya to participate in the rescue mission. The SAR team managed to pull at least three survivors out of the collapsed rubble surrounding the embassy compound, while the medical team set up a first aid clinic on site. IDF medical personnel provided care to about 250 injured persons and performed at least eight major surgical procedures before winding up their stay in Kenya.

During 1999, the IDF responded to two major disasters--one manmade, the other natural. In response to the civil war in Kosovo, it deployed a 100-bed field hospital to Skopje, Macedonia to furnish medical relief to refugees fleeing the war zone. Over the course of two weeks, IDF medical personnel, many of whom had served in Rwanda and Kenya, treated more than 1,600 people, performed three major operations, and participated in the delivery of 12 babies.

Soon after it ended its humanitarian operation in Kosovo, the IDF responded to a massive earthquake in Turkey. It flew in its SAR unit and set up a field hospital in Adapazari. The SAR unit, on the ground for a week, managed to pull a total of 12 survivors, including one Israeli child, out of demolished buildings at three different sites. And, in the space of two weeks, the field hospital treated over 1,200 patients and delivered 15 babies. The IDF also assisted in the construction of an entire village for people left homeless by the earthquake. Israel built over 300 homes, a school, a medical clinic, a shopping center, and two playgrounds for 2,000 Turkish refugees. (4)

Despite the outbreak of the Palestinian terror war (the so-called Al-Aqsa Intifada) in 2000--a war that has occupied most of the Jewish state's attention over the past five years--the IDF has still been able to engage in humanitarian operations overseas. In the wake of a massive earthquake in western India in 2001, it deployed a 100-bed field hospital to the scene. Before they turned the hospital over to Indian medical personnel, IDF doctors, nurses, and medics treated over 1,200 patients and took part in 12 births. Israel offered the same level of assistance to Sri Lanka after the devastating tsunami of 2004; however, for logistical reasons related to its perceived inability to accommodate an extensive foreign presence, the Sri Lankan government declined a large-scale Israeli relief effort. (5) Instead, it opted to accept an offer of a small IDF airlift of relief supplies, including food, water, medicine, blankets, tents, and generators.

Though the armed forces of other comparably sized states often participate in humanitarian activities in various capacities, the number and scale of the IDF's operations in this area perhaps make it unique among the armies of the medium powers. The IDF is able to make such a major contribution to these operations because the Jewish state has accumulated a vast amount of experience in dealing with the effects of catastrophes at home. An endless string of wars and terrorist atrocities has contributed mightily to the development of probably the most sophisticated and battle-tested military medical system in the world. Moreover, no army today is better prepared to respond rapidly and effectively to an emergency situation than the IDF.

The foregoing description of the IDF's humanitarian operations still leaves open the question of why Israel has extended a hand to so many other countries, including those polities not known to be overly friendly to the Jewish state. The answer is simple: a mixture of idealism and pragmatism account for Israeli behavior. On the one hand, Israel has always felt a certain moral responsibility to come to the assistance of other states experiencing the same sort of difficulties that it has had to overcome, the claims of anti-Israeli ideologues for whom the Jewish state is incapable of any ethical conduct notwithstanding. Indeed, the decision to begin providing humanitarian support to other countries in the late 1950s--that is, at a time when Israel faced daunting political, economic, and social challenges of its own--was firmly rooted in a desire to alleviate their suffering. On the other hand, the Jewish state has also had a not so altruistic motive for its behavior. IDF humanitarian operations have helped to win friends-or, at least, to lessen hostility--in a largely unfriendly world. This self-serving motive, of course, does not make the operations themselves any less noble.

If the recent past is any guide to the near future, the frequency and scope of IDF humanitarian operations are certain to grow in the early decades of the twenty-first century. The spread of mass communications all over the globe has meant that natural or man-made catastrophes get instant and sustained attention in the media, prompting swift action from governments around the world to assist the victims of these calamities. Given the speed and efficiency with which the IDF has undertaken humanitarian operations in the past, its services are sure to be among the first sought by stricken states and peoples in the future.


(1.) See, for example, Tow Bowden, Army in the Service of the State (Tel Aviv: University Publishing Projects, 1976).

(2.) Much of the information in this article can be found on the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site,, and the Israel Defense Forces web site,

(3.) Helen Davis and Douglas Davis, Israel in the World: Changing Lives Through Innovation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), p. 188.

(4.) Davis and Davis, Israel in the World, p. 223.

(5.) Initial news reports claimed that Sri Lanka had turned down the Israeli relief offer for political reasons; however, these reports were later dismissed as incorrect. The fact that Sri Lanka has a significant Muslim minority, and has generally adopted an anti-Israeli attitude in international forums, apparently had no bearing on its decision making in this instance.

DAVID RODMAN hat taught Middle East politics at the University of Michigan. His landmark book, Defense and Diplomacy in Israel's National Security Experience was published in 2005 by Sussex Academic Press. His last appearance in Midstream was in the November/December issue of 2005 with an essay un "The Jewish Wars of Liberation."
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Title Annotation:Israel
Author:Rodman, David
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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