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Interview'You can feel this pressure in the air'

Catastrophe in waiting: Israel’s Ukraine envoy sees humanitarian crisis at border

Ambassador Michael Brodsky says Poland-Ukraine crossing could get dangerous: No bathrooms, food, water; ‘people spend 24, 48 hours in their cars and buses, are angry, tired’

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's Ambassador to Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, at the Medyka crossing point, on February 27, 2022. (Twitter)
Israel's Ambassador to Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, at the Medyka crossing point, on February 27, 2022. (Twitter)

PRZEMYSL, Poland — Visibly exhausted from long, stressful days at the Poland-Ukraine border, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine warned that the situation at the crossings could turn into a full-blown catastrophe.

“This is where the real humanitarian crisis is happening,” said Michael Brodsky, speaking to The Times of Israel Monday night from his hotel in Przemysl, a half-hour drive from the Medyka border crossing in Poland.

He described a massive throng of buses, cars and people, with men being split from women and children once they near the border crossing.

“Men are standing alone. It’s a very big crowd, a few thousand angry men,” he said. “It’s a very loaded situation. You could feel this pressure in the air. And it could be dangerous.”

Brodsky said that there are no bathrooms, food, or water. “People spend 24, 48 hours in their cars and buses. People are angry, people are tired, sleepless.”

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid instructed the embassy staff to relocate from Lviv in western Ukraine to Poland. Brodsky spent Sunday on the Ukrainian side of the Medyka crossing, but remained on the Polish side Monday.

Students gather around campfire to warm themself at the Medyka border crossing after fleeing from the Ukraine, in Poland, February 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

“It’s a humanitarian crisis, which should be addressed by the Ukrainians first, and by the Red Cross, the UN,” said Brodsky.

The embassy asked all Israelis to identify themselves in the long lines by putting the letters IL on their cars. During the day, there are Israeli officials on the Ukrainian side of the border wearing yellow vests so that fleeing citizens can find them.

Initially, the diplomats would try to bring Israelis to the front of the line. “Now we realized that it might be dangerous, because people are angry, and it’s not a good idea,” Brodsky said.

Still, diplomats can issue handwritten travel documents to Israeli citizens who lost or are missing their papers.

Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky. (Israeli Embassy in Ukraine)

Vulnerable citizens – sick, pregnant women, young children, the elderly – can call the embassy hotline and let officials know where they are in the line. The Israel staff cross into Ukraine in a diplomatic vehicle, find the individual, and if possible, bring them to the front of the line.

They guide other Israeli citizens through the crossing by phone.

In all, said Brodsky, Foreign Ministry officials have helped “around three hundred people” cross from Ukraine into Poland since Saturday.

While some Israelis are grateful for the diplomats’ efforts, others are visibly angry at the Israeli officials they see.

“They’re angry at us, and at Israel in general,” said Brodsky, “because they say, ‘I pay taxes. Why doesn’t my country save me? Why didn’t they pull me out? I was under bombing in Kharkiv and they should have pulled me out and brought me to Israel. And why do they make me pay for my tickets, they said there would be rescue flights.’”

“If you say that we were warning you for three weeks to leave the country, it makes them even more angry,” he noted.

It was evident that the experience does not sit well with the veteran diplomat.

Refugees arrive at the Medyka border crossing after fleeing from Ukraine, in Poland, on Monday, on February 28, 2022. The head of the United Nations refugee agency says more than half a million people had fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Thursday. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

“What makes me angry in this situation is that exactly these people are criticizing us, saying that the country doesn’t provide us with any aid — it was exactly these people who were laughing in our face and saying, ‘You are just panicking, everything is fine, I have no intention to leave. Leave me alone, don’t even bother speaking to me about leaving the country.’”

Both Hebrew-speaking Israelis and Ukrainians with Israeli citizenship behave this way, he said.

Brodsky shed some more light on the shooting death of Israeli citizen Roman Brodsky (no relation to the ambassador) in Ukraine on Monday. A member of Ukraine’s Jewish community organizing buses to bring Jews to the border was on the phone with Roman Brodsky, who was on his way to one of the buses. While they were speaking, Brodsky was shot, and was able to tell the organizer he was injured.

The Zaka organization in Ukraine is handling Brodsky’s remains, since the embassy staff is not inside Ukraine currently.

Brodsky said he would spend Tuesday at the war room in the hotel along the San River in Przemysl.

The 100 tons of humanitarian aid Israel is sending to Ukraine is expected to land in Warsaw on Tuesday, said the ambassador, then loaded on Ukrainian trucks at the border on Wednesday.

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