Udi Ben-Uri's weekend was fully booked, between family, friends, even a Sunday work engagement.
Then the call came: Another devastating earthquake had struck Turkey. Dashing from the dinner table Friday night, he was out the door in 10 minutes.
As chief of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) National Rescue Unit, Col. Ben-Uri was leading his troops on their fourth overseas mission in three months to extract victims from the rubble of buildings that succumbed to the violent shudderings of the earth below.
"The goal is to ... save lives. It doesn't matter if they are Christians, Jews, or Muslims, or where in the world they are," said Ben-Uri, who had a trace of fatigue in his voice after working through the night in cold conditions in Turkey, where the death toll neared 400. "The point isn't our reputation. The point is the result and the effectiveness of my rescue unit inside and outside of Israel."
Nonetheless, the Israeli Army has been garnering international renown as something of an expert in coming to the aid of countries in distress. And such efforts are acting as a sort of quiet diplomacy for Israel around the globe.
When terrorists blew up the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 1998, killing 257 people, it was Israel that took control of the search-and-rescue operation. This August, the IDF's expertise allowed them to save 12 people after Turkey's catastrophic earthquake, which had Turkish and many foreign rescue teams looking to the Israelis for direction on how best to do the job. "From the first moment after the earthquake on Aug. 17, we found Israel ... by our side," said Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. "I want to express my gratitude to all of the Jewish people for their support."
Between then and now, they've also provided earthquake aid to Greece and Taiwan, and in July, they helped Palestinians out of a collapsed building in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"We always work parallel to other teams," said Ben-Uri last week in his office in Yehud. "But it's true that not all rescue units coming in from around the world know how to do the job. We know how to manage the work and prevent a situation where the building will collapse even more."
How Israel learned, ironically, was in the war in which the IDF lost some shine in the eyes of many at home and abroad. During the civil war in Lebanon, in 1981, a building full of Israeli Army soldiers was bombed. The work of sifting through rubble to find survivors, officials here say, helped them develop a specialty that allowed them to aid later, for example, victims of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia.
Strikes against the Army
The Israeli Army's role in the Lebanon war darkened its image after Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps - places the Israelis were supposed to be overseeing - were massacred by Phlangist Lebanese militiamen in 1982. Later in the 1980s, the intifadah, or Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, made Israel look like a well-armed Goliath cracking down on David - Palestinian youths armed with little more than stones and slingshots. Even in the era of Palestinian self-rule, Israeli Army abuses of Palestinians have continued.
Yet today, the image of the Israeli Army is beginning to change. At home, the IDF is widely reported to have been given the go-ahead to start formulating plans to leave its self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon, in accord with Prime Minister Ehud Barak's promise to withdraw troops from there by next June. Abroad, it is using humanitarian missions to cement friendships with allies like Turkey and making new ones among people like the Kosovar Albanians, whom Israel helped earlier this year by sending a military field hospital to treat refugees in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
"Israel's trying to be a good citizen of the world," says Akiva Tor, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "Israel is 50 years old now, the peace process is advancing, and it's part of our desire to be normalized in the region and be a good neighbor in the international order."
Israelis say that their skill in rapid response to crises comes from the harsh necessities of life in a country that has always been on alert and has always been at war - whether in reality or in principle - with some of its Arab neighbors. Terror attacks on civilians and a half dozen wars have required perpetual readiness. Many men serve three weeks in the reserves annually after their mandatory conscription. Indeed, most of Ben-Uri's unit is made up of reservists, many of them civil engineers with training that enables them to quickly assess how a building collapsed - and where the pockets of air with people trapped inside them should lie.
On call 24 hours a day
"Unfortunately, we are all too prepared for this kind of thing, so we have a special kind of unit for it, and they are on call 24 hours a day," says Hebrew University sociologist Moshe Lissak, an expert on how the military affects Israeli society. "In seven hours, they were already in Turkey," adds Professor Lissak. "In many countries it would take a couple of weeks to mobilize troops."
Lissak says that while these rescue missions do boost the Israeli Army's image abroad, public relations is hardly the main motive. "Especially in a place like Bosnia, we felt we can't stand idly by when there is a sort of genocide going on."
But the job, Israeli military analysts warn, is getting to be an expensive one, contributing to a growing Army tab at a time when Israel has had to make hard-to-swallow budget cuts and is still dependent on about $1.8 billion a year in military aid from the United States.
"They have a good unit, but it costs a fortune," says Zeev Schiff, one of Israel's foremost military-affairs reporters at the Haaretz newspaper. "This is not a big military power; this an Army which is struggling for a budget."
The cost for the August rescue effort in Turkey, he says, was extremely high. Army officials declined to comment on what it was or what this new one might cost.
"It's too early to start talking about budgetary changes," says an Army spokeswoman in Jerusalem. "Right now we're just saving lives."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society