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Analysis: Report on Michael Oren’s Earthquake Comments Rests on Shaky Ground

Update, July 1: Following the publication of the piece below rebutting JTA reporter Ron Kampeas’ inaccurate claims, JTA substantively revised its account concerning the timing of Israel’s aid operation in Haiti. After it became clear that a needs assessment team led by Ambassador Amos Radian was in place in Haiti on January 13—two days before President Obama delivered his remarks—JTA removed a passage in the initial version of his piece which read “there was no Israeli team in place when he (Obama) spoke.” Unfortunately, the cutting of these words, which were critical to Kampeas’ original claims, was not explicitly acknowledged in the new version. Readers should feel free to consider this update as a clarification.

Additionally, Kampeas, who has no specialist knowledge of humanitarian aid operations, continues to insist that a needs assessment team should be considered as separate from the larger aid effort. Again, without the vital work carried out by Ambassador Radian’s team in the 48 hours prior to the arrival of the larger Israeli aid effort, Israel would not have been able, in the words of one of JTA’s own reporters, to “hit the ground running.” In other words, as soon as a needs assessment team is in place, a humanitarian aid operation has begun.

Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) thinks he has something of a scoop concerning Ally, the newly published memoir by Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States.

There’s just one small thing. He doesn’t.

Kampeas’ attention was caught by a passage in the book in which Oren writes of his distress upon hearing President Barack Obama leave Israel out of a list of countries that sent aid to Haiti following the devastating earthquake there on January 12, 2010. This is what Oren had to say:

My foreboding only deepened on January 15, when Obama issued an official statement on Haiti. “Help continues to flow in, not just from the United States but from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic,” the president declared. Omitted from the list was Israel, the first state to arrive in Haiti and the first to reach the disaster fully prepared. I heard the president’s words and felt like I had been kicked in the chest.

Kampeas then sets about—he thinks—disproving Oren’s claims. He writes:

• Israel was not “the first state to arrive in Haiti.” Israel arrived on the evening of Jan. 15. According to this CNN timeline, the United States, Iceland, Canada, Spain, China, Argentina, Cuba and Brazil had rescue teams in place by Jan. 13 and 14. The Dominican Republic was first. (I’m also not sure what Oren means about Israel being the first to reach the disaster “fully prepared.” According to the CNN timeline, an Argentine field hospital had treated 800 people by Jan. 13.)
• Obama delivered his remarks between 1:08 and 1:14 PM on Friday, Jan. 15. The Israeli rescue teams arrived on Jan. 15 – in the evening, according to Walla News and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And, according to multiple news sources, including JTA, the Israeli army’s field hospital was not set up set up before Saturday morning, Jan. 16.

Kampeas couldn’t be more wrong. To begin with, there is the matter of the countries named by Obama as providing aid. With the exceptions of Mexico and the Dominican Republic, all those countries that made it into the President’s list (Brazil, Canada, Colombia, and France) already had a presence in Haiti in January 2010 through their participation in MINUSTAH—the United Nations Stabilisation Force in Haiti.

MINUSTAH was created by the UN Security Council in February 2004, following the outbreak of civil conflict in Haiti. Though the UN mission suffered horribly during the earthquake, with more than a hundred of its personnel buried beneath the rubble, their presence ensured that some emergency response could immediately get underway. For example, the Argentine hospital which Kampeas correctly says administered aid to 800 people two days before the Israelis arrived was already there, as part of Argentina’s contribution to the UN force, which at that time was composed of around 7,000 troops and 2,000 police officers. Similarly, the Brazilian “rescue team” which Kampeas refers to was not flown in after the earthquake, but refers to the 1,266 troops already in place being instructed by their Defense Ministry to “offer whatever assistance they can” (as proved by the CNN timeline provided by Kampeas, in an entry at 4:04 PM).

But Obama’s remarks on January 15 referred to those countries both present as part of the UN force and those countries that announced they were sending aid in the earthquake’s aftermath: hence his phrasing (“Help continues to flow in“) and his namechecking of Mexico and the Dominican Republic, neither of whom were serving with MINUSTAH.

At what stage was Israel’s effort on January 15, when Obama delivered his remarks? According to Kampeas, who relies solely on a CNN timeline for evidence on the timing of the aid’s arrival, Israel’s team was not in place until the evening of January 15, hours after Obama’s speech. Not true. The first Israeli official to arrive in Haiti was its Ambassador to the neighboring Dominican Republic, Amos Radian, who crossed the border on January 13 to assess the situation firsthand, on the direct instructions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Radian was not alone. As Kampeas’ JTA colleague Uriel Heilmann reported:

Within hours of the quake, officials from Israel’s consulates in New York and Miami were on civilian planes heading toward the Dominican Republic, where they were to rendezvous with the local Israeli ambassador before heading overland into neighboring Haiti. Their goal: rent vehicles, find a site to establish a field hospital, and take care of all the necessary logistics so the 240-person IDF-organized aid team could hit the ground running. [Emphasis added]

This is what the Israeli needs assessment team did, thereby enabling the larger Israeli aid effort to, in the words of a dispatch from Kampeas’ own agency, “immediately set to work treating wounded Haitians at the site of a collapsed hospital near the city center.”

Israel, therefore, had a team on the ground by the time Obama delivered his remarks on January 15. Yes, it was a small team, but its contribution was vital. As one senior official with a humanitarian aid organization explained to me, “When you do not have a presence in a country that has been devastated by a natural disaster, the deployment of a small needs assessment team is critical to laying the groundwork for a larger aid distribution effort.”

Moreover, Obama and his officials would certainly have been aware that the Israelis had mobilized in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, flying 6,500 miles to deliver medical aid, rescue assistance, trauma counselling and similar skills. For one thing, the CNN timeline which Kampeas relies on contains the following entry made nearly seven hours before Obama delivered his speech:

6:45 a.m. — A four-member rescue team from Israel was scheduled to arrive Thursday morning [the 14th], followed by two more jets carrying a field hospital and 220 rescue and hospital workers.

Additionally, awareness of the Israeli aid effort was being reported in major media as early as January 13. On that day, Fox News reported that “Israel and Ireland also had disaster aid teams on the way.” On January 14, The Christian Science Monitor published a piece entitled “The nations that are stepping up to help” which noted the following: “Israel: Two plane loads of aid and rescue staff of 240, including 40 doctors and nurses to set up a field hospital capable of serving 500 people a day.”

So on both key counts, Kampeas is wrong. Israel had a needs assessment team on the ground two days before Obama spoke on the 15th (“there was no Israeli team in place when he spoke,” Kampeas falsely asserted.) In large part because of the work of that team, Israel was able to roll out its larger effort, as Oren writes, “fully prepared.” And that effort was impressive by any standards; of the many countries that came to Haiti’s aid through either financial assistance or the provision of rescue and medical teams, only seven sent more than 1,000 personnel. Among those seven were both the United States, which was by far the largest contributor overall, and Israel.

Will Ron Kampeas now issue a correction? Only he, and his bosses at JTA, can say for sure, but what we do know definitively is that this attack, like the others on Oren over the past week, is based on hearsay, innuendo, and shoddy journalism. Kampeas even took to Twitter to insinuate that Oren fabricated the story. Perhaps it would be best to check that his own house is in order.

[Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90]