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Lessons From the IDF in Haiti: Opportunities in Global Health Diplomacy for the Muslim World

The Talmud describes Jews as rachmanim b'nei rachmanim: a compassionate people who are sensitive to human suffering. They are unable to sit by and ignore the terrible drama of human misery. Instead, they get up and do something about it.

As the world learned the news about Haiti one Tuesday in January, the Israeli Defense Forces were already planning their response. By Friday they had already pitched camp in Haiti. I watched a handsome IDF officer explain the facilities that had been erected within 8 hours of landing after a 16-hour flight across the world. He described the distinct tents serving critically ill obstetric, neonatal and adult patients as well as the surgical operating theaters they had erected in so short a time. Having practiced critical care medicine for a decade myself, I could imagine clearly the amount of planning and infrastructure required. Somehow these structures had gone up overnight.

The IDF had sent an initial team of 220 soldiers and among them 120 medical personnel. They were already operating, treating, delivering care for the earthquake survivors as network cameras rolled. Their initial mission included 40 doctors, 20 paramedics and 24 nurses, as well as medics and medical technicians, all of whom report to IDF chief medical officer Brigadier General Nachman Ash. Over a third of the manpower was specifically called up out of reserve to serve this humanitarian mission.

Humbled, I wondered why we were not watching a Muslim officer also from the Middle East showing similar services flown in perhaps from somewhere in the Arab world? Why were elements from the Muslim world not evident in such emphatic force and at such speed? Imagine semi permanent hospitals flying the Saudi Arabian National Guard Insignia just as these IDF facilities bore their insignias.

In Makkah, every year, Saudi Authorities deploy some of the largest semi-permanent health infrastructures to serve 2.5 million Muslim worshipers who descend to make the religious pilgrimage of Hajj, the world's largest mass gathering. Saudi experience attending complex mass operations is peerless. Recent experiences at managing pandemic influenza in this unique environment have been published in The Lancet and are informing many diverse mass-gathering experiences all over the world.

Fellow HuffPost Blogger Wajahat Ali recently wrote about some of the humanitarian efforts emerging from the Muslim world in response to Haiti here on Huffington Post some weeks ago. I read his post with interest. While certainly heartened, I was not nearly satisfied. I believe we can do much, much more.

On a rainy evening in New York City earlier this week, I talked to my learned friend Richard Horowitz about this at dinner. An attorney and expert in international relations, security matters, Richard is also a former IDF officer himself. I posed him my puzzlement concerning the lack of visible Muslim World rescue operations in Haiti.

"Why was the IDF there in the first week,' I asked " and the Arab world, with all its wealth, wasn't?"

"The IDF has enormous experience with disaster response, Qanta," he responded, without hesitation.

Years of living within the reach of terror, and managing the pandemic of suicide bombing have invested Israel with an extraordinary legacy of disaster response, emergency services and trauma medicine. As Richard explained more, I remembered the late Dr. David Applebaum and his bride-to-be daughter, young Naava, who were killed in a 2003 terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

Dr. Applebaum had been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at the Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and the founder of a network of emergency medical service clinics. He and his daughter were killed in a suicide bombing at Cafe Hillel on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. They were out on the eve of Naava's wedding. Ironically, Dr. Applebaum had just returned from lecturing in the US at a 9/11 commemorative event speaking on the medical management of terrorism. I remembered the sad story particularly well because I had just returned from a meeting that summer in Rome where I befriended a fellow physician from the same institution. He had explained to me Shaare Tzedek's collaborative work in training Palestinian physicians and also treating Palestinian patients. Dr. Applebaum, I learned, had been instrumental in advancing Israeli emergency medicine and disaster response.

As I learned of the news, I heard as fellow physicians described their confusion and then their horror when they discovered why their chief, normally the first on any disaster scene did not materialize that day. I also remembered the incident well, because it marked the beginning of an important friendship for me with another writer. He had actually been in Jerusalem at the time of this bombing.

Explaining all of this to Richard, I again asked him why the Muslim World couldn't produce such an emphatic boots-on-the-ground response to Haiti in the acute wake of the event.

We both agreed it was so much easier, and much more a custom for the Arab Muslim world to simply write a fat check and make it go away. We lack for nothing it seems in the Muslim world, except perhaps the will. Harsh words indeed but I say them as a Muslim because I feel ashamed at the lack of our contribution in Haiti given the scale of our communities and our substantial affluence. Indeed, we have our share of poor and needy and disaster stricken, but many of the nations in the Muslim world also have a lion's share of affluence and the freedom to disburse it.

On January 25th this year, the LA Times reported Saudi Arabia committed $50 million to Haitian relief efforts. Some suggested this might have been in response to rising pressures to be seen to act concerning Haiti. Personally, I would have preferred a year's commitment to deploy teams of critically skilled Saudi personnel to be stationed in Haiti. Instead, the immediate response was cash-based. I solicited opinions from friends in the region. One friend from the Arab Muslim world balked at the amount. He wrote to me, irritated. His criticism was withering.

Let us do the math for a minute, Qanta. Saudi Arabia produces 10,782,000 barrels of oil each day. At the recent price of oil of $74 per barrel, Saudi Arabia makes $797,868,000 or close to a billion dollars a day. In essence, they have just given disaster-stricken Haiti the equivalent of a one day's interest

Of course, $50,000,000 is still an enormous amount of money and only one of many of the Kingdom's philanthropic efforts, most of which are little known. A recent example is the extraordinary $500 million donation the Kingdom made to the World Food Program. While this is commendable and will save many, many lives, I believe it pales against the potential of Saudi officer-physicians (many of them my former colleagues), and other Arab world physicians tending to Haitians in person, building semi-permanent infrastructures the way we do in Makkah and Madinah, year after year to serve Muslim patients. Clearly, we have the wherewithal, we have the means, we have the knowledge. What we lack, however, is merely the will.

Through such action, we will do much more than help Haiti, we will be helping ourselves, moving our fellow Muslims from a contemptuous and unhealthy 'cash can solve anything' mentality to a sense of ownership and participation and above all a vital sense of 'can-do' engagement. While this is happening in small steps already and unfolding at the behest of the apical leadership of a number of Muslim nations including Saudi Arabia (as exemplified by King Abdullah's recent actions), I am impatient for more. Kings and Princes aside, the remaining 1.56 Billion of us can call to engage so much more deeply than just reaching into our flush pockets. Some of us can act personally on Haitian soil, some of us can act to influence our leaderships at home.

As I thought about this some more, Richard challenged me further. Quietly, he reminded me of a particularly perverse reaction to the IDF's offer of disaster response to a Muslim nation. When the Bam earthquake ravaged Iranians in 2004, Israel again volunteered an IDF rescue mission in the acute wake of the emergency. Rigid, albeit disaster-stricken, Iranian authorities refused any such aid from their sworn enemy the 'Zionist' State. This was a colossal lost opportunity when Israelis and Iranians could have worked side by side solving a humanitarian crisis. Instead, Iranian political interests usurped basic public health needs.

These Iranian actions were in fact fundamentally unIslamic. Islam teaches that the right to life, specifically the preservation of life supersedes all other duties Man has to God. In this regard, Iran placed politics ahead of the most fundamental Islamic tenet -- the sanctity of human life -- and clearly departed from fundamental Islamic values, depriving their citizens of precious, experienced assistance and in many cases, their sole chance to live.

Just as the Talmud values compassion in followers of Judaism, so too Islam preaches Raheem. Raheem means compassion or mercy and is part of the first phrase every Muslim learns and the beginning of every Islamic prayer. Relief of any suffering in any living creation is the duty of every Muslim irrespective of who suffers. The Prophet Mohamed (SAW) shared many examples of his kindness throughout his lifetime asking us to be mindful of the most minor distresses around us, even the thirst of a lost animal in the desert afternoon.

Well Muslims, Muslim leaders, Arab world, Monarchs, Ambassadors, Ministers, Professors, Officers, we have a second chance. Our fellow human being, the Haitian man is thirsting now: for food, clothing, medicine, surgery, hope, help. Will we slake it with more than cold cash?

Nothing makes more impact today in our divided world than the delivery of medicine, health and aid across the world in times of need. This morning we are waking up to the news of a devastating quake in Santiago. Another opportunity for the Muslim World to act in the service of others has arrived. We are in an age when selfless acts of Global Health Diplomacy maybe one of the few currencies remaining which can help unite an increasingly fractured, inflamed global landscape. The current climate prevailing towards Muslims and Islam particularly behooves us to act to the best of our ability in the service of others far beyond writing cheques or wiring money. We need to step beyond the limits of entrenched politics, generational hatreds and, thus freed, lend our vibrant imaginations, our diverse experience, our own raw power and pitch in alongside others, 'even' the IDF.

Fortunately, today, Global Health Diplomacy comes in many guises, in the form of agencies, as brave individuals, within national organizations and through armies. Heck, sometimes, it seems, global health diplomacy even appears dressed, like Richard once was, in the uniform of the IDF. As I watch the tragic footage emerging from South America, I already know the IDF will be in Santiago. The question is -- will we?

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