RAMLE, Israel — The site, a weedy lot abutted by a Skoda service center and some railroad tracks, doesn’t look like much now, but in a few years this parcel of land in a working-class town near Tel Aviv could hold the key to saving thousands of lives when war, or nature, strikes.
On Wednesday, the Magen David Adom medical service laid the cornerstone for a state-of-the-art blood bank between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, saying the underground building will be protected against missile strikes and earthquakes.
Prof. Eilat Shinar, head of MDA’s blood services, said she expects the NIS 385 million ($100 million) facility will be built within the next three years, but admitted she’s “an optimist.”
“There are some people who say it will be five years,” she told The Times of Israel after the ceremony.
Magen David Adom, the privately funded Israeli parallel of the Red Cross, manages the country’s centralized blood bank, providing units to civilian hospitals around the country and to the Israel Defense Forces.
Its current blood bank, built in the 1980s, is located in the Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv. The facility maintains some 250,000 units of blood — enough to make any hemophobe go light-headed — and is not effectively protected against attack.
That facility, which was constructed prior to the massive influx of Soviet Jewry to Israel in the early 1990s, may soon prove to be “too small to accommodate all the activities we need to perform in order to respond to the increasing demands” of the country’s larger and growing population, Shinar said.
Almost all the speakers at the ceremony noted Israel’s diversity and said blood knows no race or creed, ignoring the ongoing criticism of the Health Ministry’s refusal to accept blood donations from Ethiopian-born Israelis and homosexual men.
The new blood bank, the Marcus National Blood Services Center, named for Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, will be able to hold 500,000 units, twice the capacity of the current facility, and MDA plans to keep the current facility as a backup, Shinar said.
In addition, while the current blood bank’s position outside of Tel Aviv was once considered far enough from the borders to offer protection against attack, the Scud missile attack in 1991 and the wars since have shattered that notion and revealed that they are vulnerable to missiles from “the northern front of Israel, from Gaza and even from Iraq,” she said.
“Israel needs a blood bank that’s modern, that’s protected against missiles and earthquakes,” MDA head Eli Bin said.
Shinar, who sas worked in MDA since 1988, recalled Israel’s most recent war, the 2014 Gaza operation known as Operation Protective Edge, and the more than 50 days the blood bank workers spent rushing to bomb shelters when incoming rocket alert sirens sounded.
The new blood bank will effectively be a bomb shelter, allowing workers to operate as normal under “terror attack and military operation,” Shinar said in her speech.
The six-story building will feature three floors above ground — office space, a cafeteria, an auditorium — and three floors below ground where the blood will be processed and stored, she said.
Of course, decentralizing the blood supply, spreading it out throughout the country, would also offer protection against attack, but the forbidding cost of maintaining multiple blood banks makes that prospect nigh impossible, Shinar said.
Forced instead to find one location that would be suitable for the facility, MDA quickly settled on Ramle. Centrally located and close to major highways and Ben Gurion International Airport, the MDA facility will be able to send out its blood supplies to hospitals as far north as Safed and as far south as Eilat, through its supply trucks and in some cases via airlift, Shinar said.
With the new facility and its laboratories, Shinar and her team will be able to test for newer blood-borne pathogens, like the Zika virus, which have become a problem in the years since the original blood bank was built, as well as better screen for existing ones, she said.
The funding for the $100 million facility is coming from donations from the American Friends of MDA. A quarter of the money came from the Marcus Family Foundation, while the rest is coming from “smaller donations of $1 million, $1.5 million,” Shinar said.
Approximately three-quarters — NIS 285 million ($74 million) — of the funding has already been raised, and MDA is searching for donors to provide the remaining tens of millions. MDA is also hoping that the government will grant it some tax relief, to help defray the building costs.
According to US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who spoke at the ceremony, this was only the latest example of American Jewish support for the Magen David Adom, referring to a US government-led effort approximately a decade ago to have the Israeli organization recognized by the international community.
Shapiro will likely end his service as US ambassador in the next few months as President-elect Donald Trump names a replacement. Therefore, MDA used the opportunity to thank the ambassador for his support and “regular donations” to the organization’s blood bank.
After making a quick joke about the Knesset, Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman praised the donors and MDA, telling the audience about a visit he had to a Jerusalem hospital in the past year where victims of a terror attack were being brought. There, he said, he saw firsthand the need for donations and the new facility.
“Blood saves lives,” he concluded.