A former Swedish leader sparked a flurry of protest online after appearing to suggest Tuesday that Israel does not normally offer aid to enemy countries during disasters, as Israel continued to offer to help treat Lebanon’s injured.
Israel announced Tuesday night that it had reached out to offer humanitarian help to Lebanon after a massive blast rocked Beirut, killing at least 100 and leaving large parts of the capital in ruins. The disaster has pushed Lebanon, already straining under an unprecedented economic crisis, to the brink, and hospitals have struggled to cope with the thousands of injured.
“The only encouraging thing in this catastrophe in Lebanon is that even Israel has been quick in offering humanitarian aid,” tweeted former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt.
Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash Hacohen shot back at Bildt that Israel does not shy away from offering aid to countries it considers foes.
“Why are you surprised? Israel defends itself from its enemies, while helping the civilian population wherever it can,” she wrote, citing Israeli offers of help to Turkey in 2011, and Iran and Iraq in 2017, following earthquakes.
She also noted Israel offering medical treatment and other help to wounded Syrians who made it to the Israeli border, which she termed aid to Syria.
“We will continue to do both,” she added.
Israel regularly dispatches aid to faraway countries, including setting up field hospitals, assisting search and rescue efforts and sending food, water and other essentials.
Its offers of aid to enemy countries are almost always turned down and some have accused Israel of rubble-washing — using disaster recovery to burnish its image.
Bildt, who was Sweden’s premier from 1991 to 1994 and its foreign minister from 2006 to 2014, is a frequent critic of Israel’s right-wing government. He did not offer a reply to Farkash or others who criticized him online over the comment.
Aside from humanitarian aid, several Israeli hospitals have offered to help treat Lebanon’s injured. Masaad Barhum, the director of the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, near the Lebanon border, joined three other hospitals that offered help overnight.
“We wish to extend our hands in aid and assistance…We only want to help you. Rest assured those who come in wounded and hurt will leave safe and sound, with the grace of God. We’re waiting for you,” he said in a video tweeted out by the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesman to the Arab world.
Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Ziv Hospital in Safed and Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan had previously offered help as well.
Many Israelis have expressed horror over the disaster that struck Beirut and sympathy with the Lebanese people, despite past enmity between the countries.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announced that his City Hall would light up in the colors of the Lebanese flag in solidarity Wednesday night. “Humanity comes before any conflict, and our heart is with the Lebanese people following the terrible disaster that befell them,” Huldai said.
However, Yair Netanyahu, the son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted that he was opposed to displaying the colors, falsely claiming that it was illegal. “This is crazy. Lebanon is officially a terrorist state.”
Some others on the right also expressed opposition to aiding Lebanon, home to the Hezbollah terror group, with which Israel has been locked in conflict for decades. Hezbollah is sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction and is part of the Lebanese government.
Bezalel Smotrich, an MK from the right-wing opposition Jewish Home party, wrote on Twitter that Israel should only offer Lebanon help if it is in Israel’s strategic interest. “Morally, we have no obligation or need to extend a helping hand to an outright enemy state,” he wrote.
Moshe Feiglin, a far-right libertarian and former Likud MK, appeared to express glee over the blast on Facebook while implying that Israel was behind it.
“A real thank you to all the geniuses and heroes who organized this great celebration for love day,” he wrote, referring to the Jewish holiday of Tu B’av which is marked Wednesday.
He went on to claim, without evidence, that the blast was caused by explosives being stored by Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terror group. Lebanese authorities say the explosion was caused by some 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port for years blowing up. Like others, Feiglin compared the resulting mushroom cloud to an atomic bomb.
“You don’t actually believe this was some disorganized fuel depot, right? Do you understand what hell would have befallen us beneath a rain of missiles?” wrote Feiglin, the leader of the Zehut party.
Israel has fought a number of wars with Lebanon and the countries are officially enemy states. From 1982 to 2000 Israel occupied a swath of southern Lebanon to push out Palestinian groups, and in 2006 fought a devastating war against Hezbollah. While Israel in the past has avoided direct confrontation with Lebanon’s US-backed armed forces, it has indicated in recent years that it may not do so in a future conflict.
Tensions have been high on the Israeli-Lebanese border recently, after Israel said it thwarted an infiltration attempt by up to five Hezbollah gunmen — a claim denied by Hezbollah. Israel has been bracing for an attack from Hezbollah after the terror group accused the Jewish state of killing one of its men in an airstrike in Syria last month.