Israel’s PR exploitation of Haiti aid

Israel has exploited the crisis in Haiti for PR purposes, while working alongside the very aid agencies it is shutting out from the Gaza Strip. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

Despite logistical problems, the 12 January earthquake in Haiti has seen much of the “international community” pull together to provide food, doctors and other emergency aid for the already poverty-stricken country.

But the disaster has also provided apologists for the State of Israel’s human rights abuses an opportunity to try and grab high moral ground. It was a chance remark by anti-Zionist Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina that first alerted me to this. “There’s this whole email campaign going out, saying, ‘Look at what Israel is doing, this is what we mean by a disproportionate response,’” he commented while I was interviewing him on 22 January for an Electronic Intifada article.

The email that Dembina mentions appears to trace back to Lynn Sharon, an Israeli citizen who writes occasional short pieces on English-language websites in Israel and churns out letters to the country’s newspapers. The claims it makes — that “the Arab and Muslim world” has donated “nothing” — are demonstrably false, as reports of donations and field assistance from Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Indonesia show. Even Palestinians in Gaza, living under Israeli blockade, have collected donations for Haiti.

Sharon’s article also opens with the disingenuous statement that “Many countries and world leaders have accused Israel of responding disproportionately to aggression from Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.” Few “countries and world leaders” have actually had the courage to stand up and say any such thing, although many individuals and organizations have. But the odd thing about this statement is that it was former Israel prime minister Ehud Olmert who made the phrase “disproportionate response” so iconic, in an attempt to appear tough in front of hardline Israeli voters like Sharon herself.

“Disproportionate response” was, of course, the term Olmert following Israel’s attacks last winter in an attempt to win voter support during last February’s elections. It was a threat to Hamas that any rockets fired would attract a repeat of the 22 days of death and destruction that the Israeli military had just inflicted on Gaza. The phrase “disproportionate response” became a byword for Israel’s insistence that it had a right to choose the scale of its military actions against civilians, and for those actions to be on a completely different scale of death and destruction than anything Palestinian armed groups might inflict.

But the main thrust of Sharon’s email, which was forwarded around many list-serves and which has since been posted on blogs, news site comment pages and as a “letter” to newspapers around the world, is that “The US has sent supplies and personnel, Britain sent 64 firemen and 8 volunteers, France sent troops for search and rescue. Many large and wealthy nations of the world sent money. The Arab and Muslim world — nothing. Israel, a nation of 7.5 million people has sent a team of 220 people that include medical personnel and has established the largest field hospital in Haiti, treating up to 5,000 people a day, along with an experienced search and rescue team and medical supplies.”

The email then goes on to lambaste the United Nations, Judge Richard Goldstone and anyone who criticizes Israel while letting other countries accused of “crimes against their [sic] minorities,” such as “Sudan, China [and] Russia,” off the hook.

According to analysis by foreign correspondent Catherine Philp in The Times of London on 21 January, the paper was “flooded with identical e-mails.” The round-robin was incorporated into an article by Peggy Shapiro on the widely-syndicated AmericanThinker site, which added links to pages intended to support its argument. However, as of 25 January, the Guardian newspaper’s statistics page it cited lists no aid from Israel, but does include donations from the United Arab Emirates and Morocco (Canada comes out way ahead in terms of dollars donated per head of population). The carbon-copy email appears pasted into the “comment” field of innumerable stories about help for Haiti, especially ones reporting aid from Arab countries, such as an extended feature on CNN’s website.

On some Israeli and Zionist websites, the exploitation of the Haiti tragedy for PR ends goes beyond the false “facts” of Lynn Sharon’s short article. Many cite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he conflates the wider Jewish community with the State of Israel by declaring that “I think that this is in the best tradition of the Jewish People; this is the true covenant of the State of Israel and the Jewish People … despite being a small country, we have responded with a big heart.” Commentators such as Arlene Kushner, a self-proclaimed “expert on Middle East affairs,” revel in the lack of adequate medical care for earthquake survivors. “There apparently are some other hospitals set up, but they are meager facilities,” she says, pleased to be able to claim that Israel had as of 18 January established the only field hospital, despite the implications for the sick and injured.

Mainstream reporting has also been touched by the Israeli propaganda. Time magazine, Sky and Fox News, amongst others, have run footage or features on the Israeli field hospital’s work. This is, of course, as legitimate a subject as any other part of the relief effort, and the “disproportionate” coverage could be attributed to the fact that the Israelis genuinely were one of the first teams on the ground (although not the earliest: that claim goes to Cuba, the communist state whose medical aid has been routinely written out of much Western coverage).

The BBC was also notable for its coverage of the massive sums raised from the British public for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the coalition of UK nongovernmental organizations which pools resources to prevent “competitive fundraising” in the event of a major disaster. This was in marked contrast to the same time last year, when the BBC determinedly refused to broadcast the DEC’s appeal for money to help the victims of Israel’s bombing of Gaza. It was the first time that the BBC had refused to air a DEC appeal since 1963.

A few media outlets have pointed out the discrepancies in Zionist self-congratulation. The Times, in the same piece which noted the slew of “identical” emails based on Lynn Sharon’s article, also highlighted the fact that at the same time that the Israeli role in Haiti was being glorified, “Israel’s image-burnishing efforts there stand in marked contrast to the barriers it is now throwing up to the same aid organizations it is sweating alongside in the rubble.” Philp was referring to the increasing denial by Israel of visas for aid and development staff working in Palestine. The article was also one of the few beyond news agencies or the pro-Palestinian press to mention comments by Max Gaylard, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Palestine, who stated that “We are deeply concerned about the current health system in Gaza and in particular its capacity and ability to deliver proper standards of health care to the people of Gaza … This adverse situation is not like Haiti. Haiti has been destroyed by an earthquake. The circumstances [in Gaza] are entirely man-made and can be fixed accordingly.”

It is perhaps appropriate to give Ivor Dembina the closing comment on this. “It’s so cynical,” he said of the Zionist email campaign. “Zionists have realized that hate campaigns against their critics are becoming ineffective, so they’re going for positive PR, like this whole thing about sending medical aid to Haiti. Obviously any help Haiti is to be lauded, but it’s such a transparent PR exercise — if they’re so interested in helping people in humanitarian crises they can go next door and help the people they’ve dropped bombs on.”

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer from Manchester, UK. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Here first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.