Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was quick to congratulate Israeli soldiers on their relief efforts in Nepal, where an earthquake late last month claimed many thousands of lives.
“These are the true faces of Israel,” he said of a 260-strong team that arrived to pull survivors from the rubble, treat the injured, help deliver babies, and entertain traumatised children. Israel’s field hospital in Kathmandu was the biggest and best-equipped after India’s, Nepal’s large neighbour.
Similar relief operations by Israel were prominent in Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, in Japan a year later after a quake there, and in 2013 when a typhoon wrecked the Philippines.
Israel’s humanitarian concern for the victims of disasters, however, looks more cynical when set alongside its record once the TV cameras depart. Israel’s international aid budget is paltry compared to that of other developed nations.
There has to be at least a suspicion that Israel is exploiting natural catastrophes to win itself new international friends and try to refute global opinion surveys that regularly identify Israel as a major threat to world peace.
The message is aimed at a domestic audience too. As commentator Gideon Levy observed, Israelis are being reassured that, despite the evidence, they really do have the “most moral army in the world”.
The criticism that Israel is demonstrating selective compassion —bringing salvation to far-off Nepal while smashing homes and cutting down lives close by in Gaza — is blithely dismissed by most Israelis. “Nepal is not firing rockets on our cities; it has not elected terrorists to run its government,” so the narrative goes. But the hollowness of these self-serving arguments has been illustrated by events of the past few days.
Netanyahu’s new rightwing government — characterised by the Haaretz daily as Israel’s most “dangerous” yet — is the first since the Oslo accords were signed more than 20 years ago that has dropped the pretence of wanting to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. During the election campaign, Netanyahu vowed there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.
That is the main context for assessing the entirely manmade disaster Israel created in Gaza last summer, when it killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including some 500 children, and wrecked vast swaths of the built-up landscape.