Between Nepal and Gaza: Israel’s selective compassion

Once again, Israel is shining during a disaster thousands of miles away. But the people down the coast in Gaza are another thing.

By Asher Schechter | Haaretz | Apr. 29, 2015 |

As Nepal struggles to cope with the aftermath of Saturday’s horrific earthquake, with countries around the world sending rescue teams and offering financial and logistical support, Israel has once again demonstrated its impressive ability to mobilize quickly and assist disaster-stricken nations.

As the international community rallies, Israel has sent a 260-member military delegation to help Israelis injured or missing, but also to take part in the search for all missing survivors and set up a field hospital in Kathmandu. It has also sent 95 tons of medical supplies and equipment, including operating rooms, an emergency room and X-ray machines, as well as childbirth and pediatric facilities.

It’s a substantial response to a great humanitarian crisis, and an admirable effort to assist a country badly needing all the help it can get. And once again, Israel is sending disaster-relief teams wherever the disaster has struck, no matter how remote.

It did so in 1999 after the earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, that claimed the lives of roughly 17,000 people. It did so in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti, where it sent a 220-member rescue team.

In 2011, after the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster, Israel was one of the first countries to respond, sending doctors and other military personnel to set up a field hospital. In 2013, after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines, Israel sent a 148-member rescue team and 90 tons of equipment, food and medical supplies.

In fact, Israel’s propensity for disaster relief is so great that in 2003, following an earthquake that killed nearly 30,000 people near the Iranian city of Bam, Iranian officials felt compelled to say they would welcome assistance from any country — but Israel.

For a country of Israel’s size and limited military presence around the world, this kind of mobilization is extraordinary. Israel’s effectiveness and empathy wins it new fans from all quarters.

But not if the disaster strikes 70 kilometers down the coast from Tel Aviv, and if Israel is its direct cause.

More than eight months after the war that decimated Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, killed 2,132 Palestinians (and 72 Israelis) and displaced thousands, the reconstruction is still stalling, according to a report by the Association of International Development Agencies. More than 12,000 homes are still waiting to be rebuilt, and 100,000 people are still homeless.

AIDA, which considers Operation Protective Edge the most destructive Israeli military operation in Gaza in the last six years, has said it will take decades for Gaza to recover from its humanitarian crisis. An August 2014 report by the United Nations asked whether in 2020 Gaza will be “livable.” With a quarter of the population lacking access to running water and the electricity grid largely out of commission, it’s increasingly hard to make the case that Gaza is livable.

Israel, it should be noted, has allowed a certain level of humanitarian aid into Gaza during the war and in the months since, and has lifted some restrictions. But in light of the devastation, not to mention a blockade more than seven years old and two previous military operations, these steps are a drop in a wide ocean of misery.

Yet Israel is acting as if it’s more concerned with the disaster in Nepal — a remote country known to Israelis mostly for tourism and surrogate pregnancies — not the place festering on the border. “Since Saturday, we have all become Nepalese,” wrote commentator Boaz Bismuth in the daily Israel Hayom.

With the war all but forgotten and Gaza far removed from Israeli minds, Israel and its politicians are hardly interested in Gaza’s troubles.

Of course, one could argue that Gaza and places like Nepal aren’t the same thing. Gaza is Hamas’ stronghold, whereas no one has ever fired rockets from Kathmandu at Israeli cities. Can Israelis be expected to sympathize with the people they’re constantly fighting? Since even the most hawkish Israeli politicians agree that not all Gazans are necessarily Hamas supporters, yes they can.

To be fair, Gaza’s faltering reconstruction is not entirely Israel’s fault. Yes, much of it has to do with Israeli restrictions on the import of cement and other products, which Israel continues amid allegations that Hamas uses the cement for terror-related purposes: its attack tunnels.

But six months after donors from all over the globe pledged $3.5 billion in aid, only $945 million has been disbursed. Pledges aside, efforts to rebuild Gaza have been constantly delayed by political quarrels between Hamas and Fatah, and dawdling by donor countries.

So yes, one can’t fault Israelis for having difficulties empathizing with their enemies, but Israel has also constantly claimed that the war wasn’t against the people of Gaza, but against Hamas.

Sadly, even when the Nepal coverage dies down, Israelis will probably still not be interested in the Gaza crisis. How is that possible? Can people truly be selectively compassionate, and if so, are they really compassionate, or are they just fooling themselves and everyone else?

In a week, a month, probably a year, the Gaza crisis will probably still be going strong. Sadly for the people of Gaza, Israel’s sense of compassion begins — and ends — thousands of miles away .