'We are ready to go within hours'

Rebuffed by Lebanon, Israelis seek workarounds to get help to Beirut

With direct assistance seemingly off table, doctors at Sheba draw up plan to treat victims in third country and aid group collects items to send from North America and Australia

A soldier walks at the site of the massive explosion at the port of Beirut, August 6, 2020. (Thibault Camus/Pool/AFP)
A soldier walks at the site of the massive explosion at the port of Beirut, August 6, 2020. (Thibault Camus/Pool/AFP)

Some of Israel’s top disaster-response doctors are defiantly drawing up plans to treat people wounded in Tuesday’s Beirut blast, seeking to go around the political minefield between the neighbors by setting up an “ad-hoc hospital” in a third country, while others are continuing to push for Lebanon to take Israeli aid offers

Several Israeli hospitals have said they will treat people injured after a massive explosion at Beirut’s port killed at least 130, injured thousands more and left large parts of the city in ruins.

The blast hit Lebanon as it was already beset by soaring unemployment and a financial crisis that has wiped out people’s life savings. Hospitals were already strained by the coronavirus, and one was so badly damaged by the blast it had to treat patients in a nearby field.

Two of the Israeli hospitals, Ziv Medical Center in Safed and Western Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, are only about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Beirut. A third, Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, is about 30 kilometers (18 miles) further away, making them the closest hospitals to Beirut outside of Syria or Lebanon.

Lebanon has not responded to the Israeli offer but is nonetheless expected to refuse the help due to long-standing enmity between the countries, which are officially at war, and especially due to the Shiite terror group Hezbollah’s hold over state decision-making.

A Lebanese man carries his belongings as he leaves his destroyed house near the scene where an explosion hit on Tuesday the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Israel’s government has also not officially said if it would allow Lebanese patients to enter the country, though it has allowed Syrians to enter for treatment in the past and has also offered to send humanitarian aid or help in other ways.

If Hezbollah blocks treatment “these people will be the victims of Hezbollah terror, no less than people who are shot by the group,” Anthony Luder, a senior doctor at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, lamented Wednesday.

Now, disaster specialists based at Israel’s largest hospital, Sheba Medical Center, say they are ready to side-step the geopolitical grudge match by dispatching a team to a nearby European country and providing treatment there. Greece, Cyprus and Italy were mentioned as possible sites for either an ad-hoc hospital, or where doctors could be sent to augment local medical teams.

“We are ready to go within hours,” Prof. Elhanan Bar-On, director of the Sheba-based Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

Lebanese army soldiers stand while behind a helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Beirut, on August 4, 2020. (STR / AFP)

Bar-On said that he is in discussions with government and it is being considered — though a Foreign Ministry spokesman said there is currently no ministry involvement.

Sheba’s disaster center could set up its “ad hoc hospital” in a hotel or any other large building, or simply boost manpower in an existing hospital, said Bar-On. He added that this is a solution that “could enable the Lebanese to send their patients.”

A survivor is taken out of the rubble after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

He noted that his organization has experience setting up medical centers abroad, and did so last year in the wake of Cyclone Idai, which struck Mozambique’s second largest city, Beira.

Other countries have already sent field hospitals or doctors to Lebanon, which has begun the long recovery process.

Doctors Without Borders president Mego Terzian told AFP Thursday that hospitals that were quickly overrun on Tuesday, with overflowing emergency rooms, had a handle on the situation by Wednesday with many injured transferred outside Beirut, he added.

“Lebanese healthcare workers, especially those with experience of the civil war, were able to triage the emergency rooms very quickly and prioritise those patients who had to go to the operating rooms,” he said.

Terzian said Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan were sending field hospitals, and attempts were being made to guarantee supplies of basic medicines such as antibiotics, painkillers and blood bags.

Dr. Elhanan Bar-On examining a patient in on one of his center’s missions, to Lusaka, Zambia, on Jan. 8, 2018. (Courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

Discussing medical aid that Israel’s government wants to send, also likely to be rejected, Bar-On suggested that the only way to get Lebanese authorities to accept it may be to remove stickers identifying its origins — but hinted that he has concerns that Israel’s government may not agree.

“I wouldn’t do anything that could interfere with delivery of aid. We’re looking to get aid there, not score PR points. If things interfere with delivery of aid, [we] have to think about what our main aim is.”

On Thursday, an Israeli group called SmartAID said it was planning to fly medical and humanitarian aid to Lebanon, including personal protective equipment, ventilators and medical items for burn victims, to Lebanon via North America and Australia.

Also Thursday, former Knesset member and venture capitalist Erel Margalit said he had spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron to ask him to push for Lebanon to accept Israeli aid.

French President Emmanuel Macron chats with people as he visits Beirut’s Gemmayzeh neighborhood which has suffered extensive damage due to a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital, on August, 6. 2020 (AFP)

“You have the connections, leadership, and ability to break through this barrier. For this reason I am passing our message through you,” he said, according to a statement from his spokesperson.

“Israel has fought terrorism from Lebanon for decades, but we have nothing against the Lebanese people who are facing such a difficult time. We are ready to lend a hand in the reconstruction and we will be happy to help – whether publicly or quietly,” he said.

Macron, who is visiting Beirut Thursday, said he would pass the message to Lebanese officials.

Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.

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