Israelis Help Iran Victims Despite Rebuff

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 02, 2004, issue of January 02, 2004.
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Israel’s president is calling on Israeli citizens to find ways of donating to Iranian relief indirectly through international humanitarian organizations, despite Iran’s rejection of aid from the Jewish state.

“I am sorry about the decision of the rulers of Iran to reject the humanitarian good will of the citizens of Israel,” said the Iranian-born Moshe Katsav, according to a report in the daily Yediot Aharonot. But he added, “I distinguish between Iran’s rulers and the Iranian people.”

The destructive earthquake that hit central Iran last Friday has generated a diplomatic thaw, as relief help has poured in from unlikely sources, including the United States, and Iran has shown an uncharacteristic openness in accepting the aid.

No such openness has extended toward Israel, though, which was singled out by the Iranian regime as unfit to help. The Iranian Ministry of the Interior ruled out accepting any aid from the “Zionist regime.”

In the wake of the rebuff, Israeli officials and non-governmental organizations vowed to continue private efforts to collect funds for Iranian victims. But the most urgently needed help — from Israel’s vaunted military rescue teams — was never given a chance.

At least one Israeli charity, Latet, is raising funds. It is not clear if Iran will accept aid from Israeli citizens, but Latet plans to channel its funds through an anonymous third party.

A number of American Jewish groups also are collecting for relief efforts. The American Jewish World Service put out a request for donations on Friday and by Monday had collected $5,000.

Ronni Strongin, the public-relations director at the World Service, said that in preliminary discussions, Iranian authorities have expressed no problem with aid coming from the American Jewish community. Though Strongin said she was “dismayed” by the rebuke of Israel, it should not deter efforts to help Iranian citizens.

“We don’t really pay attention to government policy,” said Strongin. “We are concerned with the needs of the people.”

“It sends a message about the priorities of the Iranian government,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “They put their hatred and ideological extremism above the needs of their own people.”

The earthquake, which was alternately measured at 6.3 and 6.5 on the Richter scale, struck near the town of Bam, in central Iran, early Friday morning. The mud-brick structures characteristic to the area crumbled easily, trapping residents inside.

The Iranian government had put the death count for the disaster at 25,000 as of Monday, though the number was expected to go higher.

During the last major Iranian earthquake in 1990, when 40,000 people died, the government notoriously refused all Western aid. This time, Iranian officials have shown an openness to foreign aid workers and even Western journalists.

European rescue teams were welcomed on Saturday, and a day later American forces from Kuwait brought 150,000 pounds of food in the first American planes to touch Iranian soil since 1981.

Iranian officials at the disaster site made it clear that this help was not enough. On Saturday, shortly after the Ministry of the Interior ruled out any Israeli aid, the Iranian army chief of staff told the state news agency that “relief teams are in dire need of medical instruments and aid assistance.”

“Foreign relief packages are meager and insufficient,” said the general, Ali-Rez Afshar.

Relief experts said Israeli rescue teams would have been uniquely suited for the conditions in the destroyed area. Drawing on Israel’s extensive experience with collapsed buildings, a result of terrorist bombings, the Israeli Defense Force’s search-and-rescue teams have developed advanced technologies for delicately removing people from rubble without the heavy machinery and tractors that are normally used.

Israeli teams have been deployed to many foreign disaster sites in recent years. One of the most successful campaigns was in another Islamic country, Turkey, after its 1999 earthquakes. In one of those trips, Israeli forces recovered 12 survivors and 140 bodies.

“The Israeli forces are the most organized, and they come with the best technology,” said Ami Bergman, who accompanied Israeli teams on the Turkey relief mission as a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “More importantly, they don’t give up until every stone is turned over. In Iran I am hearing that they are already giving up after three days.”

It is not clear if the Israel government was willing to deploy military rescue teams to the disaster site before the Iranian government ruled out the possibility. In the day before the refusal of Israeli aid, the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not publicly discuss sending rescue squads. On Friday afternoon, an Israeli official told Agence France Presse that “some Israeli non-governmental organizations envisage proposing aid to Iran.”

Since then, Israeli officials have declined to go into specifics about the proposed aid.

“In times of crisis, Israel has always offered its assistance, and it has usually been accepted,” said government spokesman Danny Seaman on Tuesday. “It would be natural that we would extend that offer to the Iranians.”

The Israeli offer, though, was shot down on Saturday when Jahanbakhsh Khanjani, a spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of the Interior, announced that the “Islamic Republic of Iran accepts all kinds of humanitarian aid from all countries and international organizations with the exception of the Zionist regime.”

The shortcomings of the rescue efforts came under unprecedented criticism in Iran.

“My father is under the rubble,” a man in Bam told a reporter for the Associated Press. “I’ve been asking for help since yesterday, but nobody has come to help me.”

In this atmosphere Israeli rescue efforts could have easily generated positive sentiment for Israel within Iran, as it did in Turkey. Bergman said this was undoubtedly one of the reasons Iran refused help.

American observers said that Iran’s refusal of Israel’s help was not a great surprise, with Iranian-Israeli relations at a low point in recent weeks.

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