On the dark side
By Yossi Sarid
The prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was on the line, asking to talk to the environment minister. That conversation cannot be forgotten or interrupted - I am conducting it to this day.
Tel Aviv University's School of Public Health held a conference this week on disaster-relief delegations. The date was set before the Gaza war broke out, and they invited me to participate.
Twice I headed relief and rescue delegations - once to Rwanda during the genocide, and once to Bosnia with Jordan's then-crown prince, Prince Hassan, who led his delegation.
Those were different times. Only 13 years have passed and it feels like ages. At the time, Israel pitched its tent on the enlightened part of the planet; now it is moving toward the dark side.
When we landed in the city of Goma on the Congo-Rwanda border we were told about dozens of orphaned children suffering from cholera, who were dying in a shelter for the needy in the thick of the forest. While we were still organizing to leave for there, the satellite phone rang.
Rabin, in his baritone voice, played on the dreams that were beginning to turn into reality. "I'm in America," he said, "and you're in Rwanda; I'm making peace here with the Palestinians, and you're saving lives there, and we're all working in the name of Israel and the Jewish people."
Suddenly his voice was gentle and reflective, and when I put down the receiver it was replaced by the sounds of the African jungle.
We didn't find a shelter, only a few rickety huts, but we did manage to find the children. They were all unconscious, stark naked, covered with vomit and diarrhea - the stench almost made us flee. We picked them up one by one, unconscious and covered in excrement, to lay them down in an army truck, and they grabbed us in a desperate embrace - a last attempt to hide from death.
I am the man who traveled all the way to the back of beyond and returned another person; I am the man whose ears are deafened by the tom-toms; I am the man who saw the end of the world - that's how it looks, the end.
I told those attending the conference at the university - all of them experienced with delegations and familiar with natural and man-made disasters - that there is currently no point in sending an Israeli representative to distressed areas. After all, everywhere they will point to us and say "Go to Gaza. Heal them first. First bandage those in your midst who were burned by white phosphorus, and only then, if you'll excuse me, sail to the end of the world with your mercy."
The Israel Defense Forces is now promising that it will investigate whether it used prohibited substances. Perhaps during the next round they will check before striking, because it's simply more logical to check first, and a little more humane.
Today I'm a rank-and-file citizen, not a candidate to lead delegations. But even if I were an official, I would postpone the trip on behalf of my country to an unknown date. Israel 2009 is no longer Israel 1995 - it has changed its face and I find it difficult to recognize.
Let Olmert go on that mission, let Barak, Livni and Ramon go. They had better beware: There are places from which they will not be allowed to return, they had better make sure ahead of time.